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Reduce Your Digital Footprint

digital footprints and identity Feb 03, 2018

AUTHOR: Katherine Fitzgerald, Law student, University of Paris 8

The Internet is ubiquitous and it has become an integral part of our consumer experience. Honestly I can’t remember the last time I booked a trip or purchased a movie ticket without going online. And whilst this may be an overwhelmingly good thing, there are nonetheless inconveniences.

A major problem with buying online is the digital footprint we leave behind, a kind of breadcrumb trail of information. Even on social media sites, our habit’s or ‘Likes’ illustrate our preferences and in turn this information can be used for target advertising.

This is done through the use of “cookies” which are a kind of short term memory for the web.  They are stored in our browsers and enable a site to “remember” little bits of information between pages or visits. Cookies are widely used to make the web experience more personal, which is generally a positive thing. However some cookies collect data across many websites, creating 'behavioural profiles' for each of us. These profiles can then be used to decide what content or advertisements to show us. Indeed it has never been so easy to be targeted through online advertising.

One of the pitfall of the ‘breadcrumbs’ we leave behind is that our behaviour is communicated to retailers or private companies. In addition to the use of cookies, our ‘footprint’ is left behind through our IP address. As a result, websites offering train or air travel have recently come under fire for ‘hiking’ up prices upon a second visit to the site from the same IP address. They identify the consumer because of the information they retained upon their first visit to the site. This is indeed not the only a way of pushing us to buy but it is also a way of increasing their margins (showing a seemingly growing demand by increasing the price enticing us in turn to buy on the spot). It's the classic bait-and-switch.

To avoid the trap there are a few tricks to learn and put into use.

When it comes to buying online, don't be an impulsive shopper. Indeed it is critical that you shop around, and view fares and prices on more than one site.
When shopping online, use more than one browser, or more than one computer if possible. This will prevent the website from recognizing you upon a second visit (as the IP address is different) and therefore avoid a price increase if you do choose said product.

Open a browser under “private browsing”. This option is available in Google Chrome, Firefox as well as Internet Explorer. For most browsers you simply click the menu and then click on new private browsing window. This will allow you to browse freely but upon closing the window all information collected by the Cookies is deleted.

But it’s not only on an individual basis that steps have been taken. In light of the growing consumer concern within the EU, the Commission has taken action to regulate this Cookie Monster. A first Directive 2005/58/CE on "e-Privacy" (electronic privacy) was established in 2002 and was later revised in depth in November 2009 and implemented throughout the EU from 2012. In Europe, if a website uses cookies (that all in all facilitate our day to day browsing) it has to ask permission to use them. By requiring websites to inform and obtain consent from visitors it aims to give web users more say over their online privacy and allows us in turn to be in greater control of how our personal information is used.

So, whilst leaving cookie breadcrumbs does seem somewhat inevitable, there are steps that have and can be taken to protect us.

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