Scary: Rent-to-own outfit accused of spying on customers via laptop cams

Renting to own a piece of electronic equipment is a pretty bad idea for a number of reasons, although the practice is not entirely uncommon because lots of people feel they can’t afford the items in question outright.

However, there’s another frightening possible downside you can add to the lengthy list of reasons not to engage in the practice. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution describes information from a lawsuit filed in US District Court in Erie, Pennsylvania, on behalf of a couple who allege unauthorized photographs of them were taken by a laptop they rented from the rent-to-own chain Aaron’s. The couple say the laptop’s capability to spy on them only came to light during a mistaken repossession:

The suit contends an alleged cyber-snooping component called PC Rental Agent was soldered or otherwise installed inside a Dell laptop that Brad and Crystal Byrd of Casper, Wyo., leased last year. The device came to light only after the manager of an Aaron’s outlet in Casper came to the couple’s home last December to repossess the laptop.

The manager, who mistakenly believed the Byrds hadn’t paid off the computer, showed the couple a photo taken by the machine’s webcam of the husband using the computer at home, according to the suit that was filed in U.S. District Court in Erie, Pa.

Even more worryingly, the suit hints, Aaron’s may have deliberately tried to conceal the spying from customers:

The manager of the store later told the Byrds, according to the suit, that “he was not supposed to disclose that Aaron’s had the photograph.”

The difficult part of the lawsuit is determining which laws, if any, were broken in the alleged use of spying programs. This is yet another incident that highlights the need to aggressively protect consumer privacy as technology to monitor and track individuals in their protected, private spaces is developed, as well as an opportunity to better define the protection individuals deserve from entities like schools and creditors.

Do you think companies should be legally allowed to encroach on privacy to a degree when a supposed debt is involved? (Of note: the Byrds ultimately paid $1200 for a Dell Inspiron that retails for about $400.)

Comments