October 25, 2013
FTC Cracks Down On Rent-To-Own Chain In Webcam Spying Scandal
Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
In 2011 a Wyoming couple sued rent-to-own chain Aaron's Inc. for installing software on their rental computers which was used to take pictures, spy on their email, and even log keystrokes. Now, the Atlanta-based company has agreed to a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which includes agreeing to never use the software without customer consent.Before the settlement was reached, it was alleged that Aaron’s knew the full capability of the software they installed on rental computers and would use this information against their customers if they fell behind on payments. In the case of the Wyoming couple, an Aaron’s manager showed up at their front door with pictures captured by the software via the built-in webcam.
“Consumers have a right to rent computers free of cyberspying and to know when and how they are being tracked by a company,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection in an official statement after the settlement had been reached. "By enabling their franchisees to use this invasive software, Aaron's facilitated a violation of many consumers' privacy."
The full extent to which Aaron’s used this software was discovered later. The rent-to-own franchise used a system called PC Rental Agent which included both hardware and software elements. This system is capable of logging keystrokes and Internet history, meaning that Aaron’s could have used this information to log into their customers’ email accounts, social media sites and even bank accounts. But perhaps creepiest of all, the system can also remotely turn on the webcam without the customers' knowledge.
Certain Aaron’s franchises stored this data, instructed other stores how to install and use the system, and even shared collected data with other stores.
Under the proposed settlement, Aaron’s isn’t prohibited from using PC Rental Agent on their computers, but they are required to get customer consent before renting a computer with it installed. Furthermore, if a customer agrees to rent a computer with the deep penetrating tracking software, Aaron’s is required to notify them before they use the software to track the customer’s movements. Aaron’s can still get around this last requirement, however, if the computer is reported as lost or stolen.
All of the data collected by this system prior to the settlement must be destroyed and made unavailable to the Atlanta company and it’s franchises. This information cannot be used to collect any money or property owed to Aaron's, and corporate headquarters must terminate any relationship with a franchise that is found to be using this illegally gathered data.
Finally, the FTC settlement held that Aaron’s must internally monitor their business practices to ensure that their corporate and franchise stores are abiding by these laws and not illegally gathering data or spying on their customers.
"The FTC settlement is promising news for consumers," said Maury Herman, the lawyer for the Wyoming couple who brought the suit against Aaron’s. "The government's work confirms the troubling findings of our civil litigation. Too few consumers are aware of this type of spyware. We advocate further investigation, better consumer awareness, and privacy reforms."