Protecting your digital footprint

They call it ego-surfing. An idle moment here and there and curiosity gets the better of you. You enter your own name into Google and see what comes up. There will be a few social networking accounts – depending how tight your security settings are – a few business profiles on company websites, perhaps a Google + account you don’t use anymore. There might even be information about yourself you forgot was even “out there”.

This is called your digital footprint. It’s the profile that reaches out like tentacles from your PC or laptop and is stored on vast servers across the Internet and published on various websites. You might never have been to California but your digital footprint probably has as it has pinged from one server to another.

You think it is big now? If you’re over thirty then you’ve only been online for your adult lives. Anyone younger can find most of their lives chronicled online. The biggest game-changer has been the democratising device; smartphone, tablet or laptop that lets you snap pictures, send documents or databases from wherever you are and upload them within minutes. The growth of Cloud Computing is transforming the way we work, as well as the way we play. There are real issues we are starting to discuss; security, privacy, how much we should make public, what recourse we have if someone says too much. At some point there will be strict rules in play governing this. But they haven’t been established yet. Right now we have to make the rules for ourselves and we’re in the Grey Zone.

This Grey Zone can be freeing or restrictive, depending on how you see it. Being able to define our own parameters, security issues, telling staff what is expected of them and what they can or can’t say helps us to be more independent. Yet it can leave a great gaping hole that can be used by those with a more criminal or mischievous intent. It’s an issue for companies, as well as individuals, and the more sensitive the information you have at your disposal, potentially the more you have to lose. Reputations, along with a firm’s commercial identity, could be at risk.

Whether staff on social networking sites, whether an online profile with as many holes as a knitted scarf, or even a failure to properly establish company rules and expectations for the use of material online; the less we govern the Grey Zone the more we expose ourselves to danger.

Here’s an embarrassing but all too believable problem. A finance company is in the news. Their security set-up online has led to concerns client’s material might not be as safe as it was hoped. An investigation is launched, the online profile secured. There might have been bad headlines but at least the problem is solved. Then an anonymous member of staff sets up a parody Twitter account of the CEO, mocking his response and attitude. A crisis involving the business can be handled. A social media backlash has to carefully negotiated as a tightrope.

How about something a little more serious? It is days before Christmas. Two banks are running as normal until reports come in of long queues at ATMs. Within hours they are confronted with a run on the bans as 10,000 plus customers flock to withdraw their money. By the end of the crisis $29million will have been withdrawn. This happened in December last year to Swedbank and SEB. Why? A malicious rumour started on Twitter.

A company can never manage everything that’s said and done online. Yet being forewarned is forearmed and knowing what is being written and what the loopholes in the online profile might be can help in the development of a contingency plan. Taking the time to check your site’s security, draw up a social media strategy and check that – in case of disaster – at least you will know what’s being said about you, are all important steps to take.  Not taking them is akin to putting a target on your chest for a cyber-terrorist or hacker.

For many businesses the growth on their online and digital presence has come at a time when they don’t fully understand the industry. A rapid expansion online, particularly if there is sensitive information being uploaded, can leave some exposed. The digital footprint should be seen as another security issue for any business, but particularly those in the finance industry whose client information is more attractive and potentially lucrative to a hacker. Any company understands the responsibility they have if trusted with data about a third party. By managing our physical footprint but ignoring our digital one we can leave ourselves open to attack. Ask the questions, decide who has ownership and audit the information online; make sure every door to the company is as secure as it can be.