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Go ahead and spy on customers, says judge

Spyware okay on rental computers, for now

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A lawsuit aiming to stop rental company Aaron’s in the US from installing spyware on its machines – whose capability includes taking images of users with a PC’s webcam – has hit a setback, with a judge refusing to grant a preliminary injunction against the practise.

The original complaint against Aarron’s was that its customers – whether they were on short-term rental or, disturbingly, “renting to buy” – were monitored by the company’s “PC Rental Agent” software. The case alleges that this violates America’s Wiretap Act and its Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, since the software was used without the customers’ knowledge.

Plaintiffs Crystal and Brian Byrd of Casper, Wyoming, filed the action as a putative class action on behalf of “all customers of Aaron’s” whose images or communications were monitored and transmitted back to the company by the PC Rental Agent. As part of the action, they had sought an injunction which, among other things, would prevent Aaron’s from activating the software; contacting any members of the proposed class action; or deleting the PC Rental Agent from its computers.

The judgment reveals that the existence and use of PC Rental Agent only came to light because a local Aaron’s franchise mistakenly tried to repossess a Dell laptop after Ms Bird had made the final payment, and during the discussion that followed, showed a photograph of her husband that had been taken using the spyware.

Ms Byrd took he matter to the Casper police, who learned that installing the software was routine – at least in the Wyoming franchise. The Casper police decided to hold her laptop for further investigations, and here’s where the judgment becomes difficult to comprehend.

Magistrate Judge Susan Baxter decided that an injunction can only be granted if the applicant is at risk of ongoing harm from the defendant’s actions. Since the laptop is no longer in their possession, but that of the police, the Byrds can’t be at risk of harm; ergo, no injunction.

Even though a former employee of the Aaron’s franchise testified that the software routinely had, in the past, captured highly sensitive information such as bank account details (since it can be configured to capture keystrokes as well as webcam pictures), the judge decided that since the evidence was given by someone no longer in Aaron’s employ, what had happened in the past didn’t count as evidence of likely future harm.

The Byrds will have to await the outcome of their case to find out if they’re right or wrong.

PC Rental Agent, by-the-by, is made by a company called Designer Ware. ®

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