Warning of permanence of digital footprints

Serious privacy implications of recording personal data online

People are increasingly engaging in behaviour online which they would never countenance in the real world while forgetting the depth and the permanence of their digital footprint.

Independent TD for Dublin West Patrick Nulty was confronted by the Sunday World over inappropriate messages sent to a 17-year-old girl. According to the newspaper, he first insisted his phone had been hacked – a not-uncommon defence used by people who have been up to no good in the virtual world.

He only admitted to sending the messages after he was confronted with geo-tagging data which showed they were sent from around Leinster House at 5am on December 29th.

People may be shocked, not only by the nature of the messages, but also by how quickly the newspaper was able to establish the location from where they came and when, but they shouldn’t be, as such information is readily available.


Geo-tagging software can easily establish where a user of a particular social network or mapping service are at any given time and what they are doing.

It allows people effortlessly to record and index their online lives and it has rendered expensive GPS navigation systems almost obsolete – but it also has serious privacy implications.

People often check in online to share information about where they are and what they are doing, but the software can also work silently in the background collecting and storing the details .

"People can very quickly let their guard down online," DCU multimedia lecturer Donal Mulligan told The IrishTimes last night. "When you are using social media, unless you are very careful about your privacy settings, a profile can very quickly be built up of not only what you are saying, but where you are saying it and when. We tend to get very concerned when we hear stories about NSA spying while, at the same time, giving all sorts of information away ourselves without a second thought."

Mr Mulligan added that people also fail to grasp how difficult – if not impossible – it is to erase a digital footprint when it is made. In the age of cloud computing, many posts are duplicated to be stored in multiple locations while countless services are constantly indexing and recording the content which appears on social networks. “One of the things we are constantly telling our students is that you can’t erase your digital footprint so you need to take great care of what you post online. And don’t be stupid about what you say or do.”

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast