spyware photo illustration
A couple is suing over spyware in a rented computer. Image: Robbert van der Steeg/Flickr/CC BY-SA

A Wyoming couple is suing the Atlanta-based rent-to-own franchise Aaron’s over privacy issues. The couple alleges that a computer they rented last year was used to spy on them in their home. The suit has raised issues about privacy and the ethics of cyber technology.

Picture remotely taken from rented computer

The alleged violations came to light on Dec. 22 of last year when a manager from a Casper, Wyo., store arrived at the home of Brian Byrd, 26, and his wife Chrystal, 24, to repossess a Dell computer. The manager wrongfully believed that they hadn’t made their rent-to-own payment. Brian Byrd produce a receipt, but not before the manager showed them a picture, taken from the computer’s webcam, of Byrd using the computer in his home.

According to the lawsuit, filed earlier this month, the manager admitted that he was “not supposed to disclose that Aaron’s had the photograph.”

Computer equipped with spyware

The suit further asserts that the rented computer was loaded with spyware designed to track keystrokes, make screenshots and take webcam images.

“It feels like we were pretty much invaded, like somebody else was in our house,” says Byrd. “Crystal gets online before she gets a shower and checks her grades. Who knows? They could print that stuff off there and take it home.”

‘Kill switch’ is a common practice

Ohio State professor Petere Swire said that using a “kill switch” is a legal and common fraud-prevention practice in the industry, protected under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.  A kill swtich is a security measure used to shut off a device remotely in an emergency situation.  “But this action sounds like it’s stretching the self-defense exception pretty far,” Swire said.

Spyware designer also named in suit

The spyware component used was manufactured by Pennsylvania-based Designerware LLC. Designerware has also been named in the lawsuit. Tim Kelly, technical support chief for the company, said that Aaron’s corporate side was not a customer.

Aaron’s corporation denies knowledge

Aaron’s is a nationwide corporation with more than 1,140 company-owned stores and several hundred privately owned franchise stores. The company says that the Byrds rented their computer from one of the independent franchisees and that, to the corporation’s knowledge, none of the company stores use Designerware products.

Cyber surveillance raises ethics issues

Cyber surveillance has become increasingly common in the computer age. Computer tracking and video cameras are common in modern offices. Cameras are also used routinely on highways and in public places. Most cellphones are equipped with GPS components that can be used to monitor every step we take. And with this loss of privacy comes many questions of ethics.

“We’re already concerned that Americans are tracked, followed and spied on as never before,” said Jay Stanley of the ACLU.

Lawmakers concerned

The Do Not Track Me Online Act, comparable to the national do-not-call list, was introduced earlier this year by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. The proposed legislation would stop companies from trading stored user information if the user chooses.

Sources

Bloomberg: http://bit.ly/jimOOk

News Tribune: http://www.newstribune.com/news/2011/may/04/suit-against-pc-renter-aarons-raises-privacy-quest/

PC Pitstop: http://techtalk.pcpitstop.com/2011/05/24/i-can-see-you-in-your-home/

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