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Pa. suit: Furniture rental co. spies on PC users
Question of the Day
PITTSBURGH (AP) - 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.
Computer privacy experts said the firm has the right to equip its computers with software it can use to shut off the devices remotely if customers stop paying their bills, but they must be told if they’re being monitored.
“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 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.
Aaron's, which bills itself as the nation’s leader in the sales and lease ownership of residential furniture, consumer electronics and home appliances, said the lawsuit was meritless. It said it respects its customers’ privacy and hasn’t authorized any of its corporate stores to install the software described in the lawsuit.
Byrd told The Associated Press by telephone the day before the suit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Erie that he believes the store manager showed him the picture because he “was just trying to throw his weight around and get an easy repossession.”
That’s when the Byrds contacted police, who, their attorney said, have determined the image was shot with the help of spying software, which the lawsuit contends is made by North East, Pa.-based Designerware LLC and is installed on all Aaron's rental computers. Designerware is also being sued.
“It feels like we were pretty much invaded, like somebody else was in our house,” Byrd told the AP. “It’s a weird feeling, I can’t really describe it. I had to sit down for a minute after he showed me that picture.”
Aaron's, with more than 1,800 company-operated and franchised stores in the United States and Canada, said the Byrds leased their computer from an independently owned and operated franchisee.
Tim Kelly, who said he’s one of the owners of Designerware, said he wasn’t aware of the lawsuit and declined to comment.
Two attorneys who are experts on the relevant computer privacy laws, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, said it’s difficult to tell if either was broken, though both said the company went too far.
Peter Swire, an Ohio State professor, said using a software “kill switch” is legal because companies can protect themselves from fraud and other crimes.
By Andrew P. Napolitano
Fourth Amendment says Obama is not at liberty to collect metadata
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