What is Digital Exhaust and How the TOPS Framework Can Help Curb Digital Pollution

March 30, 2022

What is Digital Exhaust and How the TOPS Framework Can Help Curb Digital Pollution

A recent SafeHome survey reported 21% of Americans have been doxxed. When Andrew Left, CEO of Citron research started receiving unexpected pizza deliveries at his home, investigators revealed he was a victim of doxxing. Turns out some investors didn’t like his opinion of popular game retailer, GameStop, and decided to seek revenge.

Doxxing, or revealing private, sensitive information online, places individuals and their families in a very vulnerable position. It often leads to online or in-person harassment and can escalate into more serious criminal behavior like stalking, swatting, and physical attacks. 

In 2019, to combat the risks of doxxing and related activities against law enforcement officers, the FBI published the Digital Exhaust Opt-Out Guide to help employees and their families understand the dangers of personal information circulating on the internet. The document provides concrete steps for removing this information from the web to protect police from personal threats. Police departments around the country have since distributed it to their forces.

Doxxing and resulting personal attacks can happen to anyone, especially if they hold controversial public opinions or high-profile positions. In the business world, for example, it's more important than ever for organizations and their executives to be aware of the digital exhaust they leave behind. The Opt-Out Guide can help people take steps to reduce the impact of private information available on the internet.


What is Digital Exhaust?

When you drive around in your vehicle, you leave a trail of chemicals and a puff of smoke behind you. The same is true when using the internet, except your emissions contain tiny bits of information about you. Every time you log into a browser, visit a website, sign up for a freebie, make a purchase, post on social media, or participate in any other online activity, you transmit sensitive information into cyberspace.

With each activity, you give strangers access to details like:

  • Names
  • Ages
  • Family Members
  • Physical addresses
  • Email addresses
  • Purchase history
  • Income
  • Spiritual beliefs
  • Political affiliations
  • And so much more

Why is Digital Exhaust Concerning?

Your privacy is important. Most people don’t realize how much information we’re giving away. 

For one thing, your data is worth billions of dollars to companies who are collecting, compiling, and selling it for marketing purposes. You may be shocked to know that there are over 4000 such companies worldwide, and they have up to 3000 pieces of data per person. 

Even more concerning, the personally identifying information (PII) that is out there can help others locate you and reveal information about your personal and private activities. It can leave you and your loved ones open to identity fraud, stalking, personal attacks, and more. From unsolicited marketing to fraudulent purchases in your name to actual physical danger, you DO have reasons to be concerned about your digital exhaust.

Reducing Your Digital Exhaust

Safe digital hygiene habits like these can help you reduce your digital footprint:

  • Regularly complete a social media audit, deleting unused accounts and removing sensitive information
  • Increase your awareness of phishing scams and avoid clicking on untrusted links in emails and texts
  • Use strong, unique passwords and change them often
  • Use privacy features and disable location data on smartphones and social media accounts
  • Use multi-step verification whenever possible

The FBI document expands on these safe habits by providing a streamlined and powerful framework you can use to keep your online presence clean and organized, decrease your digital footprint, and become much less visible online.

Deeper Cleaning With the TOPS Framework

The TOPS Framework is an approach people can take to assess the risks they and their families are willing to take with their online activities and the specific actions they can take to mitigate those risks.

The framework includes the following categories and questions:

Threats - Using TOPS helps a user SPOT who they assess to be their biggest threat actors and prioritize where they invest their time to minimize the impact on their life.

Who are the threat actors I am most concerned with researching my Digital Exhaust?

Opportunities - Using TOPS always reminds a user of what they POST online. 

What opportunities does my Digital Exhaust allow for exploitation by assessed threat actors?

Preventative Measures - Using TOPS helps a user STOP problems through mitigation.

What are preventative measures I can take to address weaknesses in my Digital Exhaust?

Strengths - Using TOPS helps a user’s decision-making as it pertains to what OPTS I choose to execute.

  • Do I opt out of data?
  • Do I opt into a service to help me control my personal information?
  • Do I opt to create disinformation, which pollutes the data broker ecosystem?
  • Do I opt to do nothing and allow misinformation to circulate to my advantage?

What are my strengths in regards to where my Digital Exhaust is controlled?

The guide lays out very specific steps you can take to: 

  • secure your browsers and mobile phones
  • protect your WI-FI and Bluetooth networks
  • tighten up social media account settings
  • safeguard your home gaming consoles, wearable devices, and digital assistants
  • protect your personal identification and your physical address.

Once individuals understand how their private data can be tracked and exploited, they can identify potential threat actors in their lives. Then they can use the framework to make decisions about their perceived risks, decide which areas should be prioritized to combat their digital exhaust, and look at how to prevent emissions in the future.

When it comes to protecting your executives and employees, training around good digital hygiene is essential, but you can do even more at an organizational level. PrivacyBrain can help you take the next step by reducing the hassle of removing employee and executive data from the internet. Contact us today, to learn how we can help.

Start protecting your employees today

We can help you understand the scope of risk your company may face when exposed employee information is floating around online.