PC rental company sued for spying on its customers

laptop-spyYou might want to reconsider next time you’re thinking of renting electronics to save some money. According to the Wyoming Tribune, a local couple is suing the rental franchise Aaron’s Inc. for spying on them via a rent computer’s webcam. Brian and Crystal Byrd claim the national rental company used DesignerWare’s PC Rental Agent software to monitor them through a loaned Dell Inspiron laptop.

The company showed the Byrds a photo of Brian taken unknowingly when it accused them of defaulting on their lease. “I, of course, felt violated,” Crystal Byrd says. “There are many times I sat in front of that computer with barely nothing on. So I didn’t know if they had taken lots of picture of us or what.” PC Rental Agent software advertises itself as being used to keep track of a company’s rental inventory, and appears to largely be used to disable devices if a customer is not paying. According to the site, it is “absolutely” legal, and it says informing customers of the software is up to the retailer.

“As we allege in the lawsuit, since at least 2007, and likely before, the Aaron’s defendants have secretly installed this spying device or software on their rent-to-own computers. And that’s based on our investigation,” John Robinson, a lawyer representing the Byrds, says.

After the Byrds’ accusation, the authorities investigated Aaron’s and found the company is regularly storing webcam images and customer usage data on its central server. If convicted of violating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, Aaron’s could be forced to pay $100,000 in addition to $100 a day per violation.

Before anyone lumps this latest hit to privacy in with the iOS location tracking debacle, there is a very important difference: Apple was guilty of storing its users’ information for far too long, and also ignoring their requests to opt out of location services (which was attributed to a glitch and has since been fixed). What’s more is plenty of iOS users rely on these location services – they do have a beneficial use for consumers. Aaron’s altogether skipped informing its customers of its spying software, and in fact was using it without their knowledge to determine how they were using loaned computers. Nothing about this worked in consumers’ favor; its entire purpose is to thwart them.

For now, it looks like the company’s tactic is to deny. “Aaron’s respects its customers’ privacy and has not authorized any of its corporate stores to install software that can activate a customer’s webcam, capture screenshots, or track keystrokes,” the company says.