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ISPLA News-Computer webcam, spyware & keystroke

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  • Peter Psarouthakis
    A Pennsylvania federal lawsuit filed May 2 and reported in today s Washington Post claims that Aaron s Inc., a large furniture rental chain store based out of
    Message 1 of 1 , May 4, 2011
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      A Pennsylvania federal lawsuit filed May 2 and reported in today's
      Washington Post claims that Aaron's Inc., a large furniture rental chain
      store based out of Atlanta, Georgia, placed spyware on computers they rented
      to track their customers' keystrokes, take screenshots and even transmit
      webcam images of users at their homes. The case was brought by a young
      couple, Brian and Crystal Byrd. The lawsuit is reminiscent of the Lower
      Merion School District matter which last year brought about the introduction
      of anti-surreptitious video surveillance legislation by then Pennsylvania
      Senator Arlen Specter which ISPLA in Washington worked hard to successfully
      defeat.

      Privacy experts contend that Aaron's has the right to equip its computers
      with such software to shut off the devices remotely if customers stop paying
      their bills. However, customers must be notified of such monitoring. "If
      I'm renting a computer ... then I have a right to know what the limitations
      are and I have a right to know if they're going to be collecting data from
      my computer," said Annie Anton, a professor and computer privacy expert with
      North Carolina State University.

      But the couple who sued Aaron's said they had no knowledge that the computer
      they rented came equipped with a device that could spy on them. It was not
      until December 22, 2010 when an Aaron's manager came to their home to
      repossess the computer because he mistakenly believed the Byrds had not paid
      off their "rent-to-own" agreement. However, after they produced a paid
      receipt the manager showed them a picture of them using the computer that
      had been taken by the computer's webcam.

      Aaron's claims it hasn't authorized any of its corporate stores to install
      the software described in the lawsuit. Police were contacted by the customer
      who ascertained the image had been taken by software of Designerware LLC and
      installed on all Aaron's rental computers. Designerware is a codefendant in
      this matter. The Byrds leased their computer from an independently owned and
      operated franchisee. Aaron's believes that none of its more than 1,140
      company-operated stores had used Designerware's product or had done any
      business with it.

      It remains to be seen if the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the
      Computer Fraud and Abuse Act were violated. If either law was broken then
      Aaron's went too far.

      Former FTC Commissioner, Peter Swire, an Ohio State professor, is quoted in
      an AP item that using a software "kill switch" is legal because companies
      can protect themselves from fraud and other crimes. "But this action sounds
      like it's stretching the self-defense exception pretty far," he said,
      because the software "was gathering lots of data that isn't needed for
      self-protection." He is also quoted as indicating the Computer Fraud and
      Abuse Act "prohibits unauthorized access to my computer over the Internet.
      The renter here didn't authorize this kind of access."

      Fred Cate, an information law professor at Indiana University agrees that
      consent is required but said the real question might be: "Whose consent?"
      Courts have allowed employers to record employee phone calls because the
      employers own the phones. Similar questions arise as digital technology
      becomes more omnipresent, Cate said. "We always talk about deterrence value.
      Well it doesn't make sense to put (the software) on there" without telling
      people what it can do," according to Cate. "That's why we all put alarm
      signs in front of our houses, even if we don't have alarms."

      According to the lawsuit, components were soldered into the computer's
      motherboard or otherwise physically attached to the PC's electronics. It can
      only be uninstalled and deactivated using a wand. John Robinson, the
      plaintiffs' attorney, indicated the computer is currently held as police
      evidence. His clients want the federal court to declare their case a class
      action and are seeking unspecified damages and attorneys' fees. They contend
      the privacy act allows for a penalty of $10,000 or $100 per day per
      violation, plus punitive damages and other costs.

      PRNewswire released an Aaron's, Inc. item that the lawsuit regarding a
      violation of privacy relating to a computer rented from an Aaron's franchise
      store is without merit against Aaron's, Inc.

      "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.

      "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. intends to vigorously defend itself against these
      allegations.

      Aaron's, Inc. has company-operated and franchised stores in 48 states and
      Canada. It also manufactures furniture and bedding at 12 facilities in seven
      states. Information related above is a compilation of reports from the
      Washington Post, Associated Press, PRNewswire, the American Bar Association,
      and ISPLA privacy reference material.

      ISPLA expects that this revelation, along with recent coverage of Internet
      tracking by Google, and several Congressional hearings scheduled for next
      week, will keep our profession busy during the 112th Congress.

      Bruce Hulme

      ISPLA Director of Government Affairs

      To join us and support our proactive efforts please visit www.ISPLA.org
      <http://www.ispla.org/>

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