Suit against PC renter raises privacy questions

May 04, 2011 By JOE MANDAK , Associated Press

(AP) -- You didn't pay your bill. We need our computer back. And here's a picture of you typing away on it, the computer rental company told a client as it tried to repossess the machine.

Those allegations appear in a federal alleging that the firm, Atlanta-based Aaron's Inc., loaded computers with spyware to track renters' keystrokes, make screenshots and even take webcam images of them using the devices at home. The suit filed by a Wyoming couple Tuesday raises anew questions of how invasive custodians of technology should be in protecting their equipment.

experts said Aaron's, a major furniture rental chain, has the right to equip its computers with software it can use to shut off the devices remotely if customers stop paying their bills, but they must be told if they're being monitored.

"If I'm renting a computer ... then I have a right to know what the limitations are and I have a right to know if they're going to be collecting data from my computer," said Annie Anton, a professor and computer privacy expert with North Carolina State University.

But the couple who sued Aaron's said they had no clue the computer they rented last year was equipped with a device that could spy on them. Brian Byrd, 26, and his wife, Crystal, 24, said they didn't even realize that was possible until a store manager in Casper came to their home Dec. 22.

The manager tried to repossess the computer because he mistakenly believed the Byrds hadn't paid off their rent-to-own agreement. When Brian Byrd showed the manager a signed receipt, the manager showed Byrd a picture of Byrd using the computer - taken by the computer's webcam.

Byrd demanded to know where the picture came from, and the manager "responded that he was not supposed to disclose that Aaron's had the photograph," the lawsuit said.

Aaron's, which bills itself as the nation's leader in the sales and lease ownership of residential furniture, consumer electronics and , said the lawsuit was meritless. It said it respects its customers' privacy and hasn't authorized any of its corporate stores to install the software described in the lawsuit.

The Byrds contacted police, who, their attorney said, have determined the image was shot with the help of spying software, which the lawsuit contends is made by North East, Pa.-based Designerware LLC and is installed on all Aaron's rental computers. Designerware is also being sued in U.S. District Court in Erie.

Aaron's, with more than 1,800 company-operated and franchised stores in the United States and Canada, said the Byrds leased their computer from an independently owned and operated franchisee. Aaron's, which also manufactures furniture and bedding, said it believes that none of its more than 1,140 company-operated stores had used Designerware's product or had done any business with it.

Tim Kelly, who said he's one of the owners of Designerware, said he wasn't aware of the lawsuit and declined to comment.

Two attorneys who are experts on the relevant computer privacy laws, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, said it's difficult to tell if either was broken, though both said the company went too far.

Peter Swire, an Ohio State professor, said using a software "kill switch" is legal because companies can protect themselves from fraud and other crimes.

"But this action sounds like it's stretching the self-defense exception pretty far," Swire said, because the software "was gathering lots of data that isn't needed for self-protection."

Further, Swire said the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act "prohibits unauthorized access to my computer over the Internet. The renter here didn't authorize this kind of access."

Fred Cate, an information law professor at Indiana University agrees that consent is required but said the real question might be: "Whose consent?"

Courts have allowed employers to record employee phone calls because the employers own the phones. Similar questions arise as digital technology becomes more omnipresent, Cate said.

"Should Google let you know they store your search terms? Should Apple let you know they store your location? Should your employer let you know 'We store your e-mail'?" Cate said.

Last year, a Philadelphia-area school district agreed to pay $610,000 to settle two lawsuits over secret photos taken on school-issued laptops, admitting it captured thousands of webcam photographs and screen shots from student laptops in a misguided effort to locate missing computers.

Harriton High School student Blake Robbins, then 15, charged in an explosive civil-rights lawsuit that the Lower Merion School District used its remote tracking technology to spy on him inside his home. Evidence unearthed in the case showed that he was photographed 400 times in a two-week period, sometimes as he slept, according to his lawyer, Mark Haltzman.

The FBI investigated whether the district broke any criminal wiretap laws, but prosecutors declined to bring any charges. The district no longer uses the tracking program.

The Byrds want the court to declare their case a class action and are seeking unspecified damages and attorneys' fees. The privacy act allows for a penalty of $10,000 or $100 per day per violation, plus punitive damages and other costs, the lawsuit said.

"It feels like we were pretty much invaded, like somebody else was in our house," Byrd said. "It's a weird feeling, I can't really describe it. I had to sit down for a minute after he showed me that picture."

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User comments : 14

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Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (2) May 04, 2011
Haven't I been saying it?

The technology companies are using the microphones and cameras in computers and other devices to spy on everyone.

I believe Google, Apple, and Microsoft are probably all doing the same thing, along with Nokia and etc, especially in the case of Smart Phones which come equipped with multiple cameras and GPS.

They know exactly where you are and what you are doing at any time.

They are probably even filming you when you have sex with your wife, and you don't even realize it.

There could even be hidden cameras and microphones and other spying devices in all sorts of modern electronic equipment, such as your television or appliances, and we wouldn't know it.
hathewj
5 / 5 (2) May 04, 2011
It's kinda funny what 1 cent's worth of electrical tape can do in this situation.
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (1) May 04, 2011
There could even be hidden cameras and microphones and other spying devices in all sorts of modern electronic equipment, such as your television or appliances, and we wouldn't know it.
Oh you'd certainly know it. A microphone looks like a microphone, a camera looks like a camera.

I had an employer that thought he was slick back in the day and tried to hide recording devices, really expensive ones too, in the shops. I was doing some maintenance on the fire supression system and found his 'hidden' devices. When I confronted him about it, he said I was looney and didn't know what I was looking at. Then I plugged it in to a modified transceiver and showed him that it was time for a little talk in the back office.
Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (1) May 04, 2011
SH:

Even a flat screen television has a lot of space in it. You can fit a microphone inside that thing totally hidden, for example.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet May 04, 2011
SH:

Even a flat screen television has a lot of space in it. You can fit a microphone inside that thing totally hidden, for example.

Yes but if you disassemble your devices you will most assuredly find the unnecessary components. I'm odd in this respect but I live in a dusty old house, so I commonly remove covers to clean up my devices. Keeps them running far longer.
Skultch
not rated yet May 04, 2011
QC,

Why?

-skultch
GSwift7
5 / 5 (2) May 04, 2011
This is a complicated story. I see lots of different angles that make this interesting to me. The obvious issue of privacy isn't the only thing here. What about child porn issues? If Aaron's is taking web cam shots at random, what happens when a child is changing in the room? What about government agencies? Do any government agencies (fed, state or local) rent equipment from Aaron's? What do they do with the info they collect? Do they keep it protected? I visited the Volvo North American Leasing Headquarters in New York State many years ago, they had a locked room where all the lease records and car titles were stored. It had a security guard at each door and a halon gas fire protection system inside. Nobody was allowed inside by themselves. I seriously doubt that Aaron's has their spying computers guarded like that, but they could contain some very serious personal information.
GSwift7
5 / 5 (2) May 04, 2011
I once used a program like this on my own computer. It was way cool. It logged keystrokes, took screenshots as often as I told it to, logged both sides of instant message conversations, and secretly emailed reports to whatever email address I told it to. I couldn't find any way to see that it was running, or find it on my hard drive after it was installed. You had to know the secret key combo in order to bring up the control console for the app. I used it to find out that my girlfriend at the time was having an online affair with an old flame. I never told her how I found out. Once I knew what she was doing, I surprised her one day when I knew she was doing it and pretended like I didn't know already. Very unethical, but very useful. None of the antivirus programs or malware removal tools picked it up either.
GSwift7
not rated yet May 04, 2011
Here's a thought that's a little disturbing:

Let's pretend that I'm an ebil h@kker from Russia. I buy a few used computers on Ebay and install this kind of software on them. Then I put them back up for sale on Ebay for about the same price that I paid for them. Then I can sit back and use credit card numbers at will and the victims would NEVER know how their private info was getting out. I could even deliberately sell the computers at a college female dorm if I was really twisted.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet May 04, 2011
I could even deliberately sell the computers at a college female dorm if I was really twisted.
I have a fantastic business opportunity I'd like to discuss with you.
frajo
5 / 5 (2) May 05, 2011
I buy a few used computers on Ebay and install this kind of software on them. Then I put them back up for sale on Ebay for about the same price that I paid for them. Then I can sit back and use credit card numbers at will and the victims would NEVER know how their private info was getting out. I could even deliberately sell the computers at a college female dorm if I was really twisted.
Real girls first flatten, then wipe, repartition, and format used hard disks with file systems unknown to Windows.
GSwift7
not rated yet May 05, 2011
I have a fantastic business opportunity I'd like to discuss with you


lol. Yeah, you could practically give the computers away. You could get cute little laptops with girly colors to make sure guys don't buy them. You could even have a straw man do the sale. If you only sold one or two at a given University you might never get caught.

Real girls first flatten, then wipe, repartition, and format used hard disks with file systems unknown to Windows.


An average American won't do that.
Skultch
5 / 5 (2) May 05, 2011
Real girls first flatten, then wipe, repartition, and format used hard disks with file systems unknown to Windows.


That's so hot. Stop flirting with me. My wife will find out.
frajo
not rated yet May 06, 2011
Real girls first flatten, then wipe, repartition, and format used hard disks with file systems unknown to Windows.


That's so hot. Stop flirting with me. My wife will find out.
She's welcome. :)

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