PC rental store sued for alleged Webcam spying

A Wyoming couple, customers of Aaron's, a PC rental company based in Atlanta, sues the company after alleging that Aaron's was using webcam spying software to monitor its renters without their knowledge.

When you rent out your house, it's always tempting to visit your renters to check that they are happy--and to see that the walls are still in place.

So if you were a PC rental store, would you think to check up on your renters occasionally? Perhaps with those frightfully innovative Webcams?

This Socratic conundrum comes to mind because of a Wyoming Tribune story today that tells of a Casper couple who believe that they were spied on by Aaron's, the Atlanta-based rent-to-buy company from whom they rented their Dell Inspiron laptop.

Crystal and Brian Byrd claim, in a lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania, that Aaron's showed them a picture of Brian Byrd that had been taken using spying software from DesignerWare, a company also named in the suit.

Crystal Byrd told the Tribune: "After they showed us the picture, I, of course, felt violated. 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 pictures of us or what."

Naturally, everyone enjoys laptopping in their own way.

Regardless, there is something eerily similar in these accusations to those made against a Pennsylvania high school last year by the parents of a 15-year-old student. There the accusations ranged from violations of the Fourth Amendment, as well as transgressions of the Electronic Communication Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act, and Pennsylvania common law.

In that case, the Lower Merion School District paid $610,000 to settle.

Somebody's watching you. But who? CC Sergis Blog/Flickr

In this case, the software in question is called PC Rental Agent. The DesignerWare Web site claims the software is the "ultimate solution."

Moreover, the FAQ part of the site has a very simple answer to the question: "Is it legal?" The answer: "Yes, absolutely."

But perhaps the crux of this matter might lie in the whether the Byrds had any way of knowing that the software had been installed. The DesignerWare FAQ advises its clients on the subject of whether to tell renters: "That's up to you; some rent-to-own dealers like to make their customers aware of it thinking this will help defer them from doing acts that would force them to activate the Agent. Others don't reveal it."

Brian Byrd is adamant on that subject. He told the Tribune: "I never thought in a million years anybody would do something like that. I read the contract. I read every word of it and it doesn't say anything in the contract about it either."

You might be wondering how it was that the Byrds were shown the Webcam picture by someone from Aaron's. Just before Christmas, an Aaron's manager allegedly turned up at the Byrd's house and claimed they had defaulted on their lease. This is untrue, according to the Byrds. Brian Byrd told the AP he believes the manager "was just trying to...get an easy repossession."

It's unclear what the manager might have gained by showing a Webcam photo. But the Tribune says that a subsequent police investigation (the Byrds immediately informed the police after the manager's visit) revealed that it was Aaron's standard practice to store Webcam data on a central server in Pennsylvania.

A lawyer for Aaron's told the AP that he would be replying on the company's behalf once he had digested the lawsuit. A DesignerWare representative contacted by the AP reportedly refused comment.

The AP reported that the Byrds are looking to have their claim turned into a class action. Will it turn out that Aaron's chose to omit the existence of the software in their customer contract? And what might a court decide companies need to reveal to their customers in any monetary transaction?

What, for example, should cell phone companies reveal in advance about their tracking habits? It seems that this is another example in which the progress of technology might have moved a little faster than the progress of the law.

Or perhaps spying is one of those things that falls under the category of: "You know it when you see it."

 

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