vol 7, issue 1

Digital footprints are growing

23 January 2012
By Aasha Bodhani
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Paper letters

Phone calls, face to face interaction, and letter writing is being replaced by social network websites and emails

A couple shopping

Purchasing goods from high-street music stores is decreasing; consumers are turning to online sites

A couple looking at family photographs

Photo albums are becoming passé; users create online photobooks and can upload and share pictures online

BBC's Ceefax

Teletext services used to be a popular way of  finding out about holidays, entertainment listings and sport

Are digital footprints treading on the toes of carbon footprints, as more of what we do - work, rest and play - moves online?

The expression 'carbon footprint' is commonly used in the public debate on responsibility and immediate action against the threat of global climate change. However, the concept of a digital footprint, though related to carbon expenditure, is less well understood.

Carbon footprints can be measured by the amount of carbon dioxide or other carbon compounds emitted into the atmosphere by the activities of an individual, company and country. In 2007 the government launched the Carbon Reduction Commitment/Energy Efficiency Scheme, aimed at improving energy efficiency and cutting emissions in large public and private- sector organisations, which are responsible for around 10 per cent of the UK's emissions. Whilst this scheme is not just about the management of carbon emissions releated to information and communications technology, an increasingly important question is how organisations of all kinds can reduce their carbon footprint while their digital footprints are getting bigger.

Digital footprints used to be about determining an organisation's or an individual's activity in the digital, online environment, but this has now broadened to the trail, trace or footprint left behind when individuals and organisations interact online. Typically, these interactions are generated when users are present on social media, emailing, uploading and sharing videos and photos, or accessing online search tools and user subscriptions. Digital footprints can provide a user's behavioural data, interests, social groups and geographical location, which can be analysed by interested parties (including potential employees) possibly without the user's awareness.

The dynamics of Internet growth are enlarging digital footprints at the same time as ICT operations are seeking to better manage their carbon footprints. Edinburgh-based carbon accounting and environmental impact company Ecometrica operations director Gary Davis believes that "the exponential growth of digital devices means organisations face an increasing challenge in understanding the real impact on climate change". This is the "biggest carbon accounting challenge that exists in the growing use of digital devices and services" outside the office.

"For example, by moving an internal email server to a hosted cloud solution, the metered site energy and emissions would drop as the email server is switched off," Davis adds, "but this does not mean organisations can then turn a blind eye as, in effect, the energy and associated emissions with an in-house server have been outsourced."

Security company AVG has revealed 37 per cent of babies already have an online presence from the day they were born; and 23 per cent of children have their pre-birth scans uploaded to the Internet by their parents – files that can be megabytes in size. Seventy per cent of mothers said the ability to upload and share these pictures with family and friends was the motivation for posting information of their children online.

"It's a sobering thought that while a 30-year-old has an online footprint stretching back at most 10-15 years, the vast majority of children today have an online presence by the time they are two years old – a presence that will then be built on throughout their lives," says JR Smith, CEO of AVG. "This digital history will follow an individual around for the rest of their life, and parents have to be aware of the privacy settings they have set on their social networking profiles – otherwise they will be sharing photos with the whole online world."

Online 'shadow'

The AVG statistics explain that as technology advances continue to enter the market, all users will have a large digital footprint since birth. Consequently the more online presence an individual or company creates, more time will be spent on digital devices, thus increasing their carbon footprint.

US technology provider Total Tec Systems, which works to reduce data centre costs, has developed a Digital Footprint Assessment program designed to help companies measure and reduce their digital footprint while aiming to improve productivity and infrastructure resources.

According to CTO Paul Collins, an organisation's digital footprint includes servers, storage, multiple media, space and power required by data centres. The Digital Footprint Assessment programme gives an organisation clear visibility into alternative savings within the data-centre infrastructure.

"Companies looking for relief from increasing costs understand that reducing power consumption in the data centre can have a huge impact on reducing costs, but first the organisation's digital footprint needs to be understood," claims Collins. "Understanding how to measure, and then reduce, digital footprints enables companies to use existing infrastructure more effectively."

Though for most citizens living in the developed nations digital footprints are inevitable, now there is a concern over the security aspect. Companies are embracing new communications solutions and social media platforms that can be hacked into and infected with viruses and malware.

"This digital footprint exposes organisations to new threats," warns risk-management firm Stroz Friedberg's managing director Julian Parker. "We frequently identify cases of attempts at industrial espionage, theft of commercial information, whether through hacking, Trojans or phishing attacks, and concerted steps must be taken to address such issues. These should include the use of 'clean' machines when travelling to high-risk areas and whole disk encryption for portable devices, which create barriers if data falls into the wrong hands."

Says Parker: "Building a culture of understanding and compliance among employees is essential. The growth in data stored and accessed by digital devices is growing exponentially and only by ensuring staff understand the issues and their individual responsibilities will employers be able to safeguard against such threats."

In agreement, Tenable Network Security CEO Ron Gula explains: "Organisations wanting to reduce their employees' digital footprint online need to initially decide what sort of goals they want to achieve. For instance, either limiting the risk of IT infections, or tracking what employees have said about their employer online: different problems that demand a strong network monitoring strategy."

Gula's observation underlines the impact the digital footprints will have on the relationship between employers and digitally-consciencious employees, as many business sectors look to migrate to cloud-computing-based models for enterprise IT requirements.

Cloud computing may promise operational and cost efficiencies, but when data, processing and applications are being hosted by a remote third party, individual users have less say over how their personal digital activity is managed, which could cause discordance. The reconcilliation of carbon and digital footprints, meanwhile, remains a challenge for IT strategists and digitally concerned individuals alike. *

Further information

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How we're becoming online actors

The UK Online Measurement Company has revealed how online Web usage has grown and developed over the past three years; according to the measurement system the UK spent 65 per cent more time online in April 2010 (884 million hours) than in April 2007 (536 million hours).

  • The ways we communicate has changed: phone calls, face to face interaction, and letter writing is being replaced by social network websites, emails and video conferencing. VoIP places our calls through computer servers rather than analogue telephone exchanges.
  • Purchasing goods from high-street music stores is decreasing; consumers are turning to online sites such as Amazon and iTunes to either buy CDs or download tracks instead. Listening to online radio sites is also becoming more popular than via broadcast signals.
  • Consumers are increasingly managing finances via online banking accounts.
  • Photos and photo albums are becoming pass' users create online photobooks and can upload and share pictures online with family and friends around the world using websites like Flickr and Snapfish.
  • We watch less TV content on a television set that pulls in broadcast signals: TV programmes and movies can now be enjoyed online.
  • Teletext information services used to be a popular way of finding out about holidays, entertainment listings and sport results. Now it's easier to find a broader range of information on the Web.
  • Healthcare websites means that online users often take to the Internet to diagnose themselves before visiting a doctor; and GPs use the Web as part of a patient consultation.
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