The term “footprint” refers in general to traces left or caused by human beings through the consumption of resources while guests in this physical world. It is the culmination of our environmental impact through consumption in our short lifetime. This consumption includes natural resources, time, money, energy, and most precious of all, our given lifetime and youth. Thus, our impact on the environment tells a lot about us and can be as unique as our fingerprints.
According to a study by researchers of the Human Footprint Project , humans have influenced 83% of the earth’s surface. The study is based on four factors: population, travel routes, land use, and lights. One of the findings of the study shows that an average American is responsible for more carbon emissions in one year, than a person in Tanzania in a lifetime. This significant difference is certainly related to the average lifespan, income, culture, and climate. However, do any of us have the rights to disturb the environment more than others? Are we consuming something that doesn’t belong to us, and leaving an unsustainable environment for future generations? To answer these questions, it is imperative that we understand and acknowledge exactly what we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will leave to future generations.
Our influence on the earth and environment in a general sense is not limited to the consumption of goods. One of the most influential yet less-visible traces is the footprint we leave in the digital environment. There are active or passive traces left in a digital environment by personal activity. An active trace is left when personal information is released by a person himself, whereas a passive trace (digital shadow) is left when personal data is collected during personal activity. These traces, also known as digital footprints, can spread very quickly and may reach to millions in a very short time. One can leave digital traces by simply visiting a website, sending a blog post, or posting a photo or message to a friend’s website.
Our digital traces affect the environment in many ways. Every trace takes our time to generate it and for others to read it. It consumes storage and network resources on the server that increase the costs, power usage, and eventually our carbon footprint, or the total greenhouse gas emissions. We need to seek a balance in our use of digital media in order to utilize the benefits efficiently and to minimize our consumption of time and other resources.
Have you ever wondered “how often a person leaves digital traces behind every day?” or “how much of our privacy are we sharing with others?” A recent study reveals some figures about the size of the digital universe as 281 billion gigabytes (GB) for 2008 and 1.8 billion terabytes for 2011 . The digital trace generated by the average person on a daily basis was about 45 GB in 2008. This includes private information such as emails, photos, VOIP calls, and instant messages.
How about passive digital traces we leave behind by credit card purchases, bank accounts, phone records, web searches, general backup data, medical and hospital records, surveillance cameras, and so on? There are more passive traces collected than our active digital traces, which provide more personal information.
As of 2006, there were over 1 billion Visa credit cards worldwide and counting . Credit cards give a lot of private information about a person: stores we prefer, movies we watch, places we travel, books we read, prescriptions we take, rent and utility fees we pay; mainly our lifestyle is hidden in our credit card statements. It might contain a lot of details we want to keep private. We can easily learn a lot about our social life just by analyzing one of our credit card statements.
Web searches provide more insightful information about a person. 113 billion web searches were conducted in July 2009, a 41 percent increase compared to 2008 . Besides all the information we leave with our credit card, web searches may show things we have not actually done. They contain information about our future plans, such as travel, job search, health related issues, meetings, and education. Websites can provide smarter search results and personalized advertisements according to our search habits. Search engines even know how fast we type or process information, our typos, languages we speak, how smart we search, and even our physical location from the IP address.
Today many cars have GPS (Global Positioning System) capabilities and smart phones have GPS sensors. GPS devices can show our exact location anywhere in the world, provide turn-by-turn instructions from one location to another, provide a list of nearby stores, and warn us about traffic problems. A recent market research  estimates that the mobile location technology market that crosses the US will be $75 billion by 2013 with growing usage of GPS capabilities in automobiles and consumer electronics. Beside all the benefits, GPS devices leave an important digital trace behind, our exact location, which can be stored for later use or tracked by third parties.
Even if a person doesn’t have a GPS sensor with him, there are cameras all around the city that can help capture one’s location. We can see cameras inside and outside of the banks, stores, traffic lights, and even closed-circuit TV (CCTV) surveillance cameras in some cities. The total number of CCTV cameras in England is 4.2 million, or one for every 14 people according to an estimate. According to Scotland Yard, one crime per 1,000 CCTV cameras is solved in a year .
The number of smart phones increased 13.9 percent worldwide, compared to 2007, and reached 139 million in 2008 . Many smart phones have real-time video streaming capabilities and are widely used. Users upload hundreds of thousands of videos per day to YouTube about themselves or people around them. Considering that there are thousands of video sharing websites like YouTube, sharing videos on these websites lies at the center of important privacy concerns. There are websites to share videos, photos, music, location, blog posts, and personal updates. With the rise of the micro-blogging trend, we can see real-time updates about a person on websites like Twitter. This allows us to track every minute of a person’s life.
Social networking is a new way of communication. Many websites provide tools to build online communities of people, who want to share and learn interests and activities of others. We can build our friend list and share photos, videos, and updates about our life. According to Nielsen Online’s report on Internet usage in June 2009 , users spent an average of 4 hours and 39 minutes during June on one of the most famous social networking sites, Facebook, which has 87 million visitors. Normally these websites provide privacy settings to limit who can access our friend list, photos, or other information. Since most of the people don’t refuse friend requests, it is very easy to be added as a friend and get access to all the private information of people we do not even know. Once we get accepted by a person as a friend, it gets easier to be accepted as friend by his/her friends, since we have mutual friends. These connections increase our friend list exponentially.
I had known about this process for some time, so I wanted to confirm it myself by setting up an account with fake information and identity on Facebook in 2008. I selected a college and input random personal information to my profile. I visited some group pages on Facebook and joined them. Then Facebook started to offer possible friend lists that have common interests with me. I started to make random friend requests to many users on these lists. In one day, I had around a hundred friends in my list that I don’t know personally. As a friend on their list, I have access to all information they share with others. Most of the users are using default settings and are not aware of privacy issues. Even if we are careful about all these settings and our privacy, our information is accessible by website managers. Digital traces left by users are valuable commercial assets for companies, and most of them share or sell this information to third party companies which provide online advertisements, products, and services.
There is a positive side of these digital traces. Websites provide better recommendation of products and services, targeted advertisements, smarter search results, and personal news. Entertainment businesses can provide appropriate suggestions by using location services. However, erasing our digital traces is difficult or even impossible in some cases. To protect our privacy and identity, it is essential that we are aware of places our personal information is stored. It is the responsibility of websites to protect user’s data. However, it will be a good start to be aware as users of our traces on the digital universe and to share personal information carefully.
With various effects on our natural and social environment, digital traces are one of the most influential and yet less known by-products of consumption. It is an important responsibility for us to decide how we affect our environment, how we spend our time, and what we are going to leave to future generations. With all the unique values given to humans, we need to learn to make meaningful contributions and carry more responsibility for our actions, especially in the digital world where boundaries are unlimited.
Acknowledgment: This article is produced either in part or a whole at MERGEOUS , an online article and project development service for authors and publishers dedicated to the advancement of technologies in the merging realm of science and religion.
Halil I. Demir is an internet entrepreneur and freelance writer.