Apparently the folks at the NSA aren't the only ones we have to worry about spying on us. Several rent-to-own companies allegedly loaded their leased or rented computers with software that could allow them to secretly record keystrokes (including logins and passwords), track the location of the computer, download screen shots of sites visited, use the webcam to record anyone in front of the computer and send bogus "registration" forms to gather personal data to aid in debt collection, according to recent settlements reached with the Federal Trade Commission.
"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 a statement announcing a settlement reached with Aaron's, Inc., a national rent-to-own retailer based in Atlanta.
Aaron's does business through more than 1,300 company-owned stores and 700 independently-owned franchise operations. The FTC complaint alleges that the company not only knew some of its franchisees were using the software, the company provided installation and trouble-shooting advice, and company server space was used to store data gathered by that software.
"By enabling their franchises to use this invasive software, Aaron's facilitated a violation of many consumers' privacy," Rich said.
Without admitting any wrong-doing, under the terms of the settlement Aaron's has agreed to never use monitoring technology to capture keystrokes or screenshots, or activate the camera or microphone on a consumer's computer, except to provide consumer-requested technical support. Aaron's must also notify consumers if they install tracking technology on a rental product, and must monitor its franchisees to ensure they follow these guidelines.
The agreement with Aaron's is the latest in a series actions by the FTC. In addition to Aaron's, rent-to-own companies that have reached settlements with the FTC over charges of illegally spying on consumers include Aspen Way Enterprises Inc., Showplace Rent-to-Own, J.A.G. rents, ColorTyme, Red Zone Investment Group Inc. and Premier Rental Purchase. None of the companies have admitted wrong-doing.
A similar settlement agreement was reached with software developer DesignWare, the creators of PC Rental Agent software. The formal FTC complaint against DesignWare alleges that as of August 2011, approximately 1,617 rent-to-own stores in the US were using this software, and that it had been installed on about 420,000 computers worldwide. However, it's not clear what percentage of those units might have actually been spied upon.
The PC Rental Agent software included a "Detective Mode" that could be activated to monitor anyone using that computer. The software had to be loaded into the computer before it was rented but could not be detected or deleted by the consumer using the machine. The detective mode would be activated remotely by the rental company if the unit was categorized as stolen because the rental fees were not paid and the machine was not returned to the company.
A long statement on DesignerWare.com argues that this was a legitimate piece of antitheft software allowing rental companies to track and recover units that were categorized as stolen.
"The Detective program that gathered information was never used unless the device was reported stolen and, to this day, DesignerWare has never been presented with one shred of evidence that shows otherwise," the company statement asserts.
The software program still appears to be for sale at PCRentalAgent.com, but the company statement on DesignerWare.com reports that it is no longer possible to activate the detective mode on any PC Rental Agent software. Calls to DesginerWare were not returned.
Unfortunately, there is no way to know how many companies might be developing what they think of as a routine software application that could potentially be used to spy on consumers.
Asked if there could be other software similar to the Detective Mode in PC Rental Agent used in any industry, not just rent-to-own, Jay Mayfield of the FTC Office of Public Affairs said, "We can only comment on investigations that have been made public. We couldn't confirm or deny whether we're investigating any other specific company or software."