May 04, 2011, 3:10 PM — It's easy to treat the story about the Wyoming couple suing a PC rental chain for spying on its family through a rented laptop as an "offbeat" news item.
But the tale actually raises a troubling thought: More of us probably are being spied on by the computers we have in our homes, offices and in between than we know.
A major furniture rental chain provides its customers with computers that allow it to track keystrokes, take screenshots and even snap webcam pictures of renters using the devices at home, a Wyoming couple said in a lawsuit Tuesday.
[T]he couple who sued Atlanta-based Aaron's Inc. 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 on 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.
Imagine being Brian Byrd at that moment. Seeing a picture of himself secretly taken by the webcam in his laptop. It must have been shocking, infuriating -- and chilling.
As it should be. We all talk about the threats to privacy that have evolved with digital technology -- from phishing to computer tracking software to Facebook to mobile location data storage -- but as far as I'm concerned, webcam spying breaks new low ground.
Aaron's has dismissed the couple's allegations as being "without merit." From a press release responding to the lawsuit:
The Company believes that none of its over 1,140 Company-operated stores have used the product developed or provided by PC Rental Agent or Designerware LLC, the two vendors named in the lawsuit, and neither vendor is approved or have done any business with Aaron's, Inc.
We'll get back in a minute to PC Rental Agent, the software that enabled the alleged spying on the Byrds, and Designerware LLC, the Erie, Pa.-based company that makes it (and which also was named in the lawsuit).
Aaron's, Inc. 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 named plaintiffs leased the computer at issue from an independently owned and operated franchisee. Aaron's, Inc.