Author Topic: Rental Firms May be Allowed to Spy on Customers With Webcams  (Read 5771 times)

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Offline Effie Trinket

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http://www.dailytech.com/Rental+Firms+May+be+Allowed+to+Spy+on+Customers+With+Webcams/article22204.htm


Aaron's Inc. franchisees are free to continue to monitor laptop leasers via remote webcam spykit -- for now.


Smile! You might be being remotely monitored via webcam!  (Source: Ministry for the Environment)

"Error: my sensor is dirty. Please take me in a steamy area... such as your shower."

Some may recall that back in May news broke of an Aaron's Inc. (AAN) franchisee remotely spying on users with a webcam to make sure they were making payments.  The incident led to one outraged couple filing suit against the company, seeking class action status.

Unfortunately for that couple -- Crystal and Brian Byrd -- there case was dealt a serious setback by Judge Sean Mclaughlin, a judge with the US District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (Erie District).

In his ruling [Google Docs], the judge refused to grant a preliminary injunction, which would have banned Aaron's and its franchisees from both continuing to monitor users with the "PC Rental Agent" remote webcam spykit and from conducting activities to obfuscate which computers had the spykit installed.

In denying the injunction, Judge Mclaughlin opens the door to continued monitoring of users, and to the company disguising how many users it monitors.

The court rules that that the plaintiffs don't have the computer any more and thus are no longer suffering harm and that they provided insufficient evidence to demonstrate that other members of the potential class are currently suffering harm.

Basically the dilemma the Byrd family's lawyers face in arguing their case is that no current employees are willing to whistle blow on their employer and discuss remote monitoring.  Furthermore, the court is dismissing a former employee who did testify against the franchisee as non-credible in so much as they aren't a present employee ("...given by Ms. Hittinger, and no other information about the current practices of Ms. Hittinger's particular franchisee location were elicited. In fact, Ms. Hittinger no longer works at an Aaron's..."). 

The court seems content to take the Aaron's franchisee at its word about how many computers its monitoring, while dismissing the plaintiff's claims as speculative, writing:

    In fact, according to the testimony of Timothy Kelly, co-owner of DesignerWare, Inc., on May 3, 2011, only eleven computers were transmitting information via Detective Mode to Aaron‘s franchisees. ECF No. 43, page 190. This is contrasted to the testimony that ―roughly 80 to 100 computers every month get reported stolen from Aaron‘s franchises. Id. The Court was given no evidence or information regarding the computers that were so transmitting and no information about the laptop users – that is, whether they are the lessees or others in possession of the laptops.

The problem is that while the franchisee is "cooperating" with the investigation, there is a very real possibility that it can obfuscate its current surveillance from investigators.  As the court seems content only to consider taking action if additional evidence can be gathered, and will only consider current employees as dependable witnesses, the Byrd family's trial prospects aren't looking too good.

About the only think working on their side at this point is that the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in a similar case against the Lower Merion School District of Pennsylvania who installed webcam remote capture software on its student's 2,300 loaner laptops.

However, that case had the advantage of having all the laptops be government property, and all the software installation practices being carefully chronicled in local government documents from the school system.  This case is far different as it deals with a private entity, who likely won't be foolish enough to share documentation on the extent of its monitoring or share its laptop collection with investigators.

And there's still the outstanding question of whether webcam monitoring really violates the Wiretap Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which prevent the unauthorized interception of electronic communications.  In this case, the communication is not "intercepted" per se; it's initiated by the remote party. 

Thus while most in the public would understandably be repulsed and outraged at a company taking pictures of a family in a private setting, remote monitoring is a gray area of the law, particularly when the company owns the device in question.

Law enforcement and courts have shown willingness to side against lone parties, such as a former Apple, Inc. (AAPL) technician who installed remote monitoring software on Macs to take explicit photos of female clients.  However, whether courts will side against corporations engaging in somewhat similar behavior, particularly when it lacks the overt sexual overtones remains to be seen.  After all the corporations have the advantage of having money and greater privacy capabilities on their side.

Aaron's claims it doesn't monitor users remotely as a national practice.  But at this point it may be a moot point -- companies are one victory closer to watching their customers remotely.  Customers may complain -- but until additional legislation is passed, they may have little explicit legal recourse.

Offline Dig

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Re: Rental Firms May be Allowed to Spy on Customers With Webcams
« Reply #1 on: July 21, 2011, 11:44:47 am »
Did I fricking wake up in the twilight zone?
All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately

Offline Freeski

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Re: Rental Firms May be Allowed to Spy on Customers With Webcams
« Reply #2 on: July 21, 2011, 05:04:50 pm »
Customers may have "little explicit legal recourse", but they sure as hell don't have to give them a dime of their money.

Vote with your wallet!
"He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it." Martin Luther King, Jr.

Offline Monkeypox

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Re: Rental Firms May be Allowed to Spy on Customers With Webcams
« Reply #3 on: July 22, 2011, 03:06:08 am »
Did I fricking wake up in the twilight zone?

No, just the USA.
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Offline Kilika

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Re: Rental Firms May be Allowed to Spy on Customers With Webcams
« Reply #4 on: July 22, 2011, 03:44:32 am »
The real tragedy is that this is not surprising. The courts are more and more siding with the invasion of privacy of the public.

In this case, I'm not seeing any justification for monitoring a laptop if the unit is not stolen, or not behind in payments. It's like where si the probable cause? I know probable cause is for law enforcement, but still, how can they monitor something before it's stolen?

And if what they say is tue about only monitoring 11 laptops, why are they be allowed to not show proof of those 11 cases? We don't get to stand before a judge and say, "Your Honor, I could not have killed that person because I was not there at that time, but I'm not willing to provide the evidence I wasn't there"..."Well, it seems clear then, you obviously weren't there, so, not guilty! Your free to go."

It's the the same ole attitude of proactive prime fighting that thinks they can deny people something because there is a potential for the person to commit a crime. Like restricting gun ownership because the person MAY use the gun in committing a crime.

That same logic says that pedestrians should not be allowed near a road because the MAY jaywalk!  ::)

I mean really, who gave these people a law degree? A preponderance of evidence cannot be had if the court is manipulating what is accepted into evidence.
"For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows."
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