How many of us are being spied on through our laptops?

Lawsuit filed by couple whose laptop webcam allegedly took pictures for computer rental store

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intends to vigorously defend itself against these allegations.

There's huge hedge language in that statement. Aaron's "believes that none of its over 1,140 company-owned stores have used the product developed or provided by PC Rental Agent or Designerware LLC." It believes, but it doesn't know for sure. And it doesn't! How could it?

In the second paragraph, Aaron's lawyers assert that the company didn't authorize "any of its corporate stores" to install PC Rental Agent or similar tracking and spy software. Then they try to distance Aaron's from the Wyoming store by noting that it's "an independently owned and operated franchisee."

Aaron's essentially is portraying the store cited by the Byrds in their lawsuit as a rogue franchise. Well, Aaron's has nearly 700 franchisees, by my count. I wonder how many other Aaron's franchisees that rent computers in this lurching economy were intrigued by PC Rental Agent's promise to "protect your RTO (rent to own) computers."

(By the way, one thing DesignerWare doesn't mention on its PC Rental Agent website is if the software can activate a customer's webcam. I've emailed the company to confirm whether that's true.)

But this really isn't about Aaron's. It's about the prevalence of surveillance software and how much it's actually used. And I have no idea what the answer is.

Go to DesignerWare's website and you learn that the company "has served more than 4,000 clients in 46 states and currently contracts work in over seven countries throughout the world."

Served them exactly with what? Probably not just PC Rental Agent, since DesignerWare offers "security consulting, application delivery, and IT and business process outsoursing solutions" and that its clients "include hospitals and health systems, integrated delivery networks, and other providers of technology; IT and Information plans; life sciences and technology firms; and state and federal government agencies."

(Also see: Is privacy an illusion in the Digital Age?)

OK, fine, so what other products does DesignerWare sell? Well, you'll never find out by going to the company's website, which offers no product or service details to casual visitors. For that information, you need an account with a username and password. And DesignerWare doesn't even tell readers on its home page how to get an account. (I'm not suggesting anything sinister, but I'm certainly stating that, for whatever reason, you can't just go to DesignerWare's site and find out what products it makes.)

And DesignerWare is just one small company. There are many others out there making electronic surveillance equipment and software, with predictable results -- the products get used and, sometimes, misused.

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