Supp. Chapter 4, Lesson 2 Text

Lesson Two: Managing Your Digital Identity


Everything you do online is observed and tracked. As you build up a history of online actions, people can begin to view you through that digital identity. How important is your online reputation? How does this tracking occur, and what can you do safeguard your reputation?

Defining Your Online Identity

Digital profileThink about the things you do online. Do any of the listed tasks below sound like steps you might take on a regular basis?

  • Visit websites
  • Log into accounts for different services
  • Post on social media
  • Send or receive email
  • Engage in instant chats or video phone calls
  • Play games
  • Download files

Your online identity is built from your history of website visits, accounts with services, social media posts, email activity and other digital footprints. What does your identity say about you? Anyone that reviews your online history can make judgments about you, based on your activity. Have you committed a crime, or are you likely to do so? Would you make a good employee? Should you be considered for a relationship? All of these questions might reasonably be answered - rightly or wrongly - by someone that reviews part or all of your online identity.

In real life, you are just one person. You have a single first and last name, social security number, and most likely a single street address, phone number and driver's license. However, you can create multiple online identities. For example, you could create different user accounts on social media platforms with different user names and profile details, and even behave completely differently on each platform. You might reasonably create different email addresses to handle personal and work-related email. You also might need to create different user accounts to access online services from your bank, school, utility companies and government agencies.

It's possible that all of your online identities can eventually be traced back to you, a real person, in some fashion. For example, you might use the same email address to recover passwords for all of your accounts, or you might access all of your accounts from the same computer. Just because you've created multiple accounts doesn't mean that activity in one account is hidden and can't be used to evaluate you.

Managing Online Identity

It's easy to do things online that seem to be private - such as sending an email to a friend or posting to a small group on social media. However, you should always assume that everything you do is - or can be - made permanently public. All of the online services you use - including your Internet Service Provider and social media platforms - keep careful records of all of your activity. You might simply have poor privacy settings on your social media accounts that expose more of your private activity than expected. Or, a law enforcement agency might get a court order to review all of your private history.

How can you minimize your private information that is available online and protect your online reputation? There are a few simple steps that you can take.

Avoid sharingThe easiest way to avoid having embarrassing private information exposed online is to avoid sharing it in the first place! Think twice about posting inappropriate pictures, making jokes at the expense of others, using bad language, bullying or putting yourself online in ways that you wouldn't want a family member, potential employer, or law enforcement officer to see. Protect your online reputation by following high ethical standards in everything you do.
Minimize real-life identifiersYou generally want to avoid sharing your real-life personal information such as street address, phone number, social security number or credit card information. Some web sites may need some of those things in order to verify your identity or conduct business with you. However, you should avoid giving them more than needed, and simply avoid creating accounts with services that seem too invasive. Remember that your online identities can be tied together and traced back to you through these real-life identifiers.
Keep separate accountsYou may find a good reason to create multiple online identities for different purposes. For example, you might create a personal social media profile to interact with a few friends and also keep a work-related account in order to conduct business online. Similarly, you might have personal, work, and school-based email addresses. Your employer might even give you a second phone so you'll receive business calls separately. It's a good idea to avoid mixing your personal and professional life. Try to separate emails, posts and other online activity from unrelated parts of your life. Otherwise, your friends may learn too much about your work environment and your employer could find out more than you wanted about your personal life.
Reduce trackingOnline services will use a number of technologies to track your activity. Simply understanding those technologies will let you avoid some (but not all) of the tracking that happens across your online activity. You'll learn more about these tracking methods below!


Tracking Methods

Digital footprintsWhat kinds of technologies or approaches can be used to track your online activity? There are many possibilities. The list below describes some common approaches.

  • IP Addresses - Your computer, mobile device or home network has a unique IP address assigned to it by your Internet Service Provider. That IP address is usually visible when you make a request to an online server. So, your ISP can match your IP address to all of your website visits, email requests, file downloads, and so on. Similarly, web servers can record the incoming IP address of requests as you browse from site to site. Every time you click on a link in a web browser, your IP address and that link information are likely stored in logs by both your ISP and the web server you are visiting.
  • Clicking on Ads - When you click on a digital ad, that click is likely tracked by the company that placed the ad. The link in the ad may include some unique identifier for you, such as your email address if the ad was sent by email. When the click is received by the server, it can log the fact that you clicked on the ad.
  • Cookies & Super-Cookies - When your web browser visits web sites, those sites may use cookies to store bits of information in your browser. The cookies may include your personal preferences, session information or anything else the server decides to store. The cookie information is generally not secure, so anyone else that has access to your computer can access the cookie data. Standard web browser cookies are generally easy to manage and delete through your web browser. Over time, a number of "super-cookies" have been developed using technologies like Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight and HTML5 local storage. These cookies are harder to manage and delete, though web browsers are getting better at letting you handle them.
  • HTTP Referrer - When you visit a website, often the HTTP request to that website will include the URL of the web page you are coming from. So, a web server can understand and track where incoming users have recently visited.
  • Browser Fingerprinting - A web server can find out many pieces of information about your web browser and other configuration details on your computer. Combined, these pieces of information form a type of fingerprintthat can identify your computer with reasonable uniqueness.
  • Tracking Pixels (Beacons) - Any time you view an image in an email or web page, that image gets loaded from a server. Therefore, the server knows when individuals are viewing content that includes specific images. It is common to place a small, single-pixel image with a transparent color within an email or on a web page. This tracking pixel, also called a beacon, is invisible to you, but lets the server know any time a user has visited the web page or opened an email.
  • Opened Emails - Your email client may, but default, download and display any images that are present in the email message. If that email message contains a tracking pixel that is invisible to you, the server will then understand that you have received and read the email message.
  • Mobile Ads - Advertising on mobile devices is a big business. Both iOS and Android platforms have developed unique mobile advertising identifiers for your smart-phone or tablet. These advertising identifiers give apps a good idea how you respond to advertisements that appear within programs.

Avoiding Tracking

You are unlikely to completely avoid all tracking methods that monitor your online activity. However, there are a few things you can consider doing.

  • Remove Cookies - Your web browser will let you review and remove cookies. Be careful not to remove cookies from legitimate sources that might store information that helps you use their website. However, advertising agencies and other non-critical sources might create and store cookies, and you can safely delete those things when you find them.
  • Avoid Ads - Now that you know your advertising clicks are tracked, you may want to avoid clicking on digital ads. If you see something of interest, you might be able to search for that company, product or service in a search engine and still visit their website without clicking on the ad.
  • Private Browsing - Your web browser often has an option for "private" browsing. In this mode, your history is not tracked locally and new cookies may be prevented or handled differently. However, be aware that online services such as your ISP can still track your activity, but that activity simply is not stored in your local computer as well.
  • Email Configuration - Many email clients will have an option to avoid automatic download of images. If you turn on that option, then you will still be able to read all of the text content, but will simply see a blank box where an image would normally occur. If you feel that viewing particular images is important in one message, you can then download the images for that particular email. By avoiding automatic image download in your email, tracking pixels or beacons in your incoming messages will not be activated.
  • Mobile Device Configuration - Carefully review the device settings for your smart-phone and tablet. The iOS and Android operating system may have privacy settings to let you manage your advertising identity and other privacy concerns.
  • Proxy Service - Several online tracking approaches rely on a direct connection between your computer and the online server. You can choose to use a proxy service, which is a server that sits in-between you and the final destination and acts as a middle-man. The proxy service will encrypt all traffic and generally prevent your ISP from tracking your online activity. It will also avoid sharing detailed information about your computer (IP address, HTTP referrer, browser fingerprint) with the destination server.

Tracking footprints

Your digital identity and online reputation are important! By taking some common-sense steps to minimize your digital footprints, assuming that everything you do online is public and tracked, and acting in an ethical manner, you can help safeguard your digital life.


Work with Me: Privacy Check-Up


How secure is your online information? Do you have any privacy concerns with your social media accounts, email accounts, web browser or other services? In this exercise, you are going to evaluate key parts of your digital identity and ensure that your personal information is kept as private as possible.

How to Complete this Activity

Your goal is to review your privacy and security settings on important tools and services that you use frequently. Everyone may have a different mixture of online accounts; some will have many accounts and some may have few to none. Complete the steps listed below for the things that apply to you. Take notes about what you find and any corrective actions you make.

Social Media under magnifying glassSocial Media Review

If you have any social media accounts, review the privacy settings for each account. Have you agreed to make any part of your social profile or posted content public or search-able? If so, work with a parent or teacher to make smart decisions about the privacy settings that should be used for your accounts.

Email Client Review

If you have an email address, review your email client software or web interface. Can you find an option to disable the automatic download of images when you receive an email? Is that setting enabled or disabled? Consider disabling the setting, if possible, to prevent others from seeing if and when you receive email that contains tracking pixels.

Check Browser Privacy & Security Settings

Each web browser like Google ChromeMicrosoft EdgeApple Safari or Mozilla Firefox has their own set of privacy controls. Review the privacy and security settings for your browser, using the browser's "Help" feature if needed to locate and understand those settings.

For example, on Google Chrome, select "Settings" -> "Advanced" from the options menu, and scroll down to find the Privacy settings. You will see configuration options similar to the ones shown below. Do you understand the meaning of each setting? Are there any settings that you might want to change in your web browser? As a parent or teacher for help if needed.

Chrome privacy settings

Similarly, on Mozilla Firefox, select "Options" -> "Privacy and Security" from the options menu. Firefox privacy and security options are shown below.

Firefox privacy settings

Other browsers like Microsoft Edge and Apple Safari have similar settings.

Other Accounts

Do you have online accounts with any other company such as a bank or school? If so, review those account profiles to see if only the minimum amount of personal information is present in those profiles.

Last modified: Sunday, 18 August 2019, 10:37 PM