and Brian Byrd were a hard working couple, but like many people in today’s
economy, money was tight. So when they wanted a new computer they turned
to popular rent-to-own chain Aaron's Inc. (AAN)
to affordably purchase a new system. Picking a Dell Inspiron, they were
happy and productive -- but they would soon make a disturbing discovery.
I. Big Brother -- Your Local Store Manager -- is Watching You
After entering a rent-to-own contract on the laptop in early 2010, the couple
completed their last payment in October 2010, a month ahead of schedule.
But Mr. Byrd fortuitously made a mistake in his payment submission
resulting in Aaron's never logging it as received.
In December, the store manager showed up at the couple's house with an order to
repossess the computer. And he carried with him a far more disturbing
item -- a picture taken from the computer's web cam inside the couple's home,
which Aaron's had been using as a remote spy cam. He claimed the picture
The Byrds were appalled and called the police. A police investigation
revealed that Aaron's employees "routinely installed the PC Rental
Agent" on rent-to-own laptops. The PC Rental Agent, a product of DesignerWare, was
capable of regularly taking pictures of users, taking screenshots, and logging
their key presses -- all without the user ever realizing it.
II. The Byrds File Suit
Wyoming couple has filed a lawsuit [PDF]
in US District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Their
lawyers are seeking to gain class action status for the suit.
In an Associated Press interview, Mr. Byrd said his primary concern is
for his wife and child's safety and privacy. He states, "Crystal
gets online before she gets a shower and checks her grades. Who knows? They
could print that stuff off there and take it home with them. I've got a 5-year-old
boy who runs around all day and sometimes he gets out of the tub running around
for 20, 30 seconds while we're on the computer. What if they took a picture of
that? I wouldn't want that kind of garbage floating around out there."
The computer involved in the case currently remains in police custody.
And Aaron's has thus far refused to comment on how or why it spies on its
The company has 1,140 stores in the U.S. and Canada and made $123.6M USD in
calendar 2011. So a class action lawsuit involving all of the chain's
computer-buying customers has the potential to be huge.
III. How Strong is the Case?
The law is hardly black and white on the issue of companies remotely monitoring
customers. But legal precedent seems to be on the Byrds' side.
A similar lawsuit was filed in 2010 by parents
of children in the Lower Merion School District of Pennsylvania. The
school district had issued laptops to its 2,300 students as part of a high-tech
initiative, but packed them with remote monitoring software, capable of turning
on the webcam and taking shots.
The district maintained that the feature was only activated when a laptop was
recorded missing or stolen. And it said the service successfully led to
the recovery of 28 laptops.
But facing a firestorm of legal and public scrutiny, the district agreed to
remove the remote monitoring software and settle two lawsuits for $610,000 USD.
By contrast, the Aaron's case appears even stronger. The Lower Merion
School District at least informed parents in their contract that they were
being monitored. It does not appear that Aaron's does so with its
Furthermore, the school district, despite in effect losing (settling), provided
a wealth of evidence that the remote monitoring features were used sparingly
and responsibly. It remains to be seen if the same is true for Aaron's.Updated: Wednesday May 4, 2011 9:50 a.m. -Aaron's has released a statement.
Aaron's, Inc....said today that a lawsuit filed by a Wyoming couple regarding a violation of privacy relating to a computer they rented from an Aaron's franchise store is without merit against Aaron's, Inc.The Company believes that none of its over 1,140 Company-operated stores have used the product developed or provided by PC Rental Agent or Designerware LLC, the two vendors named in the lawsuit, and neither vendor is approved or have done any business with Aaron's, Inc.Aaron's, Inc. respects its customers' privacy and has not authorized any of its corporate stores to install software that can activate a customer's webcam, capture screenshots, or track keystrokes. The named plaintiffs leased the computer at issue from an independently owned and operated franchisee. Aaron's, Inc. intends to vigorously defend itself against these allegations.
Aaron's, Inc....said today that a lawsuit filed by a Wyoming couple regarding a violation of privacy relating to a computer they rented from an Aaron's franchise store is without merit against Aaron's, Inc.
The Company believes that none of its over 1,140 Company-operated stores have used the product developed or provided by PC Rental Agent or Designerware LLC, the two vendors named in the lawsuit, and neither vendor is approved or have done any business with Aaron's, Inc.
Aaron's, Inc. respects its customers' privacy and has not authorized any of its corporate stores to install software that can activate a customer's webcam, capture screenshots, or track keystrokes. The named plaintiffs leased the computer at issue from an independently owned and operated franchisee. Aaron's, Inc. intends to vigorously defend itself against these allegations.
It still remains unclear how many franchisees of Aaron's Inc. are using the software, even if the company's claims are substantiated. The store in question was also reportedly decorated to appear like a first-party Aaron's store, so the case still raises significant questions for customers -- who likely will be unable to determine between some first-party and franchise outlets.
quote: Except the computer is still owned by Aaron inc. so essentially they are wiretaping themselves.The field of view camera is very narrow and is used only to asses the location of the passed due payments of said property.
quote: >.> The computer is FOR RENT!
quote: So if you leased a car you think the company you leased it from should be able to watch everything that goes on in your car as well as listen to all your conversations?
quote: They have right to know whats going on with their property except the logins of customers accounts. At least thats how I see it. So they can know the location of the laptop I have no problem with it.
quote: Well according to their Aaron's records the payment wasn't made, because Mr. Byrd made a mistake.
quote: The couple had a signed receipt but later learned an employee who took their final cash payment was suspected of stealing customer payments, which is why the store manager believed they hadn't paid for the computer and came to repossess it.
quote: the couple completed their last payment in October 2010
quote: Their property their rules... Of course it would be nice if they stated in their agreement. Though whenever you make a lease agreement you are usually under the mercy of the owner unless there is some law that states otherwise.
quote: electronic communications and/or images were intercepted, accessed, monitored and/or transmitted by a spying device or software without the customer's authorization