You can’t avoid having an information footprint by not going online

You Can’t Escape

Even if you’re not actively using the Internet, someone else may be sharing information about you — intentionally or unintentionally. So, avoiding the Internet does not guarantee privacy.

Our Advice

Share what you’ve learned on this site with your friends and family — it will improve your own online privacy.

How It Works:

In today’s society, nearly every life activity, big or small, produces information that is stored and shared with somebody else: walking in front of a store’s security camera, using a smart card to pay for transit or parking, strolling around with a cell phone in your pocket, even just turning on the light or drinking from a faucet… (After all, your electricity and water use are metered by utility companies.)

You just can’t avoid generating an information footprint (see: You’re Leaving Footprints). More and more information from our lives is moving online as companies, institutions, organizations, and governments post and share the information they’ve collected about individuals (often with benign intent, like employee or member directories). (See: Search Is Improving.) Furthermore, others who are actively online may post information about you, either intentionally or inadvertently. People you know may refer to you in their posts or tag you in photos. And even if they don’t mean to broadcast information about you publically, your friends and family can lose control of data they store or share online (see: Sharing Releases Control).

Finally, multimedia content often contains more information about other people than the producer intends it to, through background noise and visuals or through contextual artifacts. For example, a photo that is meant to show an animal at the zoo may also accidentally capture a person visible in the background, or a video intentionally posted of a sleeping baby could accidentally reveal her pulse via subtle skin color changes. Forensics experts have been making use of this type of unintentional information to solve serious crime cases for years.

What Could Happen? Real-World Stories:

How Target Figured Out a Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did

You Can’t Sue Family Over Unwanted Facebook Photos, Says Judge

Betrayed by Metadata: John McAfee Admits He’s Really in Guatemala

‘Mean’ Moms Create Facebook Group Bashing ‘Ugly’ Kids

Online ‘Shaming’ a New Level of Cyberbullying for Girls

What You Can Do About It:

Communicate About Preferences:

  • Get consent from others before sharing information about them, for example, from your friend you took a photo of — and from anyone else identifiable in the background.
    • When sharing information about your children, be aware that you are contributing to their information footprint before they can go online themselves.
  • Talk to your friends and family members who use social media about your preferences if you don’t want them to post about you, or only want them to post certain types of information. (But realize they might still do it anyway!)

Use Your Imagination:

  • Assume that your family members and close friends are sharing information about you.

Get the Facts:

  • Search for yourself regularly to see what others can find out about you.

How to Better Control Your Privacy — Guides:

Don’t Tag Me, Bro: How to Control Facebook Photo Tags

An Easy Way to Opt Out of Twitter’s New Photo-Tagging Feature

Where to Learn More — Related Resources and Educational Tools:

Sharing Information: A Day in Your Life

An introductory video about types of information gathered and sold

Hot on Your Trail: Privacy, Your Data, and Who Has Access to It

A video about what kind of information is tracked and who is tracking it

I Took a Photo of My Friend That I Want to Share… Now What?

A poster for middle-school and high-school classrooms

What Do You Think? Discussion Questions:

  1. If you don’t actively use the Internet, does that mean you’re not on the Internet?
  2. At what age does someone first start to have an Internet presence or an information footprint?
  3. What types of records and information about you are online and freely searchable in public databases?
  4. What types of information about you are being collected by private companies, and searchable for a fee?
  5. What information do institutions (like your bank, your school, or businesses you use) have about you? Is that information “hackable” — can people break into a database and get access to it?
  6. What information is your debit or credit card leaking about you? What information are the items in your house leaking about you?
  7. Do your parents post about you online? What do you think about that?
  8. Have you ever had a family member or friend post something online about you that you wished they hadn’t? If so, what did you do about it?
  9. Do your friends and family know what things it’s okay to post about you? How would you start a conversation about that?
  10. Do you know what’s okay with your friends and family to post about them?
  11. In general, how do you decide what’s appropriate to post about other people?

What People Are Saying — News, Commentary, and Research:

Everything We Know About What Data Brokers Know About You

7 Surprising Household Items That Invade Your Privacy

Matching Known Patients to Health Records in Washington State Data

Anger Mounts After Facebook’s ‘Shadow Profiles’ Leak in Bug

Free Public Database Access Encourages New Applications, Abuses

If You’re Collecting Our Data, You Ought to Protect It

Blown to Bits, Ch. 2 – Naked in the Sunlight: Privacy Lost, Privacy Abandoned

‘BatDad’ and Other Parents: To Post or Not to Post?

Your Digital Trail, and How It Can Be Used Against You

Our New Resources for Teachers: "You Can't Escape"