Rent a computer, get a webcam spy for free

The Aaron's office furniture rental chain is being sued for secretly spying on its customers via webcam. How stupid can it possibly be?

What is it with the state of Pennsylvania and webcam spying? The Keystone State may soon be better known as the Keyhole State after yet another scandal involving webcam Peeping Toms.

A Wyoming couple has filed suit against Aaron's in a U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania, accusing the office furniture rental chain of spying on them via PC Rental Agent, software that came preinstalled on the laptop they'd leased.

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Per Ars Technica:

Crystal and Brian Byrd found this out the hard way in 2010 when they rented a Dell Inspiron laptop from Aaron's, which they paid off in full in October of 2010 -- one month ahead of schedule. Aaron's didn't record the last payment correctly, however, leading an Aaron's store manager to show up at the Byrd home in December in order to repossess the computer. The store manager then produced a photo of Brian Byrd using the machine, taken with the Inspiron's webcam, as apparent "proof" that the Byrds were still using the computer.

The Byrds ended up calling the police, and an investigation later concluded that Aaron's "routinely installed the PC Rental Agent" on all of Aaron's rent-to-own computers. Law enforcement confirmed that the product indeed permitted the company to routinely take webcam photos, screenshots, and log the keystrokes of its customers without their knowledge or consent.

Attorneys for the Angry Byrds are trying to get the suit catalogued as a class action, figuring if the Byrds got spied on, surely other customers of the 1,829-store Aaron's chain ended up as unknowing stars of somebody else's dirty movie. If you're interested in joining the festivities, they have a sufficiently alarmist website ready and waiting for you to sign on.

Why sue in Pennsylvania? Because DesignerWare, developer of the PC Rental Agent spyware, is based in Erie, Pa. And possibly because of what happened in Pennsylvania last year.

Regular readers will remember the wet hot mess that resulted when the Lower Merion School District of southeastern Pennsylvania was caught spying on students via their laptop webcams. That controversy lasted almost a year, with the school district ultimately paying out $610,000 in damages -- mostly to the attorneys who represented the families of the students. Along the way, we learned other schools were doing this too.

As with Lower Merion, some brain-dead functionary at Aaron's apparently thought it would be a swell idea to install software that could remotely operate a webcam and not tell anyone about it. Worse, it also installed a keylogger. Any and all information entered into that computer -- private emails, credit card numbers, health records -- could have been captured by an Aaron's employee at any one of its 1,800 stores, all in the name of "security."

Aaron's execs have admitted installing the software on every computer they lease. The only question is whether they broke the Electronic Communications Privacy Act in doing so, and how much money it's going to cost them as a result.

How anyone could possibly think this is a good idea just astounds me. That a $500 million company did it leaves me almost speechless. Whoever gets to swing the stupid stick at Aaron's annual company picnic must have really sore arms. I hope the company gets thoroughly soaked for this, even if most of the money ends up in an attorney's pocket.

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This article, "Rent a computer, get a webcam spy for free," was originally published at Track the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.