US RENTAL FIRM Aaron's Inc. has been sued for installing software on computers so that it could spy on customers.
A couple from Wyoming found that a laptop computer they rented from the firm came with software and hardware called PC Rental Agent, which to their surprise took screenshots of their files, logged their keystrokes and even took webcam images of them at home.
The revelation came to light on December 22, 2010 after the 26-year-old Brian Byrd was shown a picture of himself at the computer by the manager of an Aaron's store in Casper. The manager wrongly accused Byrd of not finishing his payments for the computer and was apparently using the photograph to intimidate Byrd in an attempt to repossess the laptop.
Byrd told the Associated Press that he feels like his and his wife Crystal's life has been invaded and that the manager told them that he was not supposed to disclose the photograph, suggesting that there might be many other customers whose privacy is being invaded by the firm.
The couple were particularly incensed over the fact that they have a five-year-old boy and they questioned if pictures of him might have been taken by the webcam too.
Byrd said the manager never explained why the company was taking photographs of users. It boggles the mind what exactly it thought it would achieve by spying on its customers who keep it in business.
The couple have a signed receipt for the computer and had made three payments for it, two of $156 and one of $900. However, it is believed that a staff member was stealing customer payments, which led to the manager accusing customers of not paying up.
The software was created by Designerware and is thought to be installed on all of the rental firm's computers. There are also hardware parts soldered onto the motherboard, making it impossible to remove. Aaron's has over 1,500 stores, which means thousands of people could be affected by the intrusive software.
The news is particularly disturbing because it raises questions about how many companies are doing this and if it will only be revealed when someone shows a picture that was taken. Last year a school in Philadelphia was forced to pay out after it was found to have been spying on students using webcams. Unless a user has built their computer themselves, this brings up the question of whether they can be really be certain that someone hasn't rigged it to spy on them.
The Byrds filed a lawsuit in the US District Court in Erie. They want the case to be considered a class action and are seeking an undisclosed amount of damages.
Although the Byrds' case is merely a civil lawsuit, we can't help but wonder whether criminal charges might be appropriate against the company and its executives, as well. µ