Print 57 comment(s) - last by snakeInTheGras.. on Jul 25 at 2:50 PM

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

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

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RE: The $.25 fix....
By SiliconJon on 7/20/2011 1:46:54 PM , Rating: 4
Myself, I can't be so quick to equate liberty to the cost a half inch of electrical tape. The loss in liberty here is immense, albeit not surprising.

After all, divulgence is privacy.

RE: The $.25 fix....
By Indianchief on 7/20/2011 1:51:29 PM , Rating: 2
True - I should have titled it "the quick fix". Obviously, there is a bigger issue - but in the short term, its a quick kiss my butt solution.

RE: The $.25 fix....
By Solandri on 7/20/2011 3:57:03 PM , Rating: 4
I'm actually curious where this case will lead. If you strip out the corporation vs. individual aspect of it, it becomes:

Joe agrees to lend Frank his laptop for a certain amount of time in exchange for $x. Joe installs monitoring software to make sure Frank doesn't steal it. Frank claims it's a violation of his privacy because the monitoring software could be abused.

It's an interesting conflict of personal property rights vs. privacy rights and, once you strip out the anti-corporation bias most people have, I'm not really sure where the proper balance lies. The school case IMHO was very different because the school was an agent of the government, and the laptop (or its equivalent) was required by the school. In this case, you have two private parties willfully entering an agreement.

RE: The $.25 fix....
By Hyperion1400 on 7/20/2011 4:50:15 PM , Rating: 2
Most likely, it will hinge on whether the use of monitoring software was enumerated in the contract...

You know what, this is as good a time as any people:

(this is where the link would go!)

Every single one of you needs to read this and be prepared to draw it from memory any time you read over and sign a contract, to keep you from getting (literally in some cases) raped.

(How the hell is posting a link to contract law spam DT? Does my 2.2 rating and 200 some-odd post count, count for f$^% all now? Anyway, google "Uniform Commercial Code" and look for the like to Cornell University...)

RE: The $.25 fix....
By jhb116 on 7/20/2011 7:01:44 PM , Rating: 2
I don't think that applies in this case because a person is paying a fee for use. I believe this case becomes more tenuous if this plan is rent to own which is popular with companies like this.

My major issue (outside the invasion of privacy) is that where does this lead/end - cameras in our cars and houses since most of us don't technically "own" them until the final payment is made??? Very slippery slope.

I am surprised that most are conversing on the stupidity of renting versus the outrage to the obvious invasion of privacy. It seems like if the FBI/police try to do something to provide a better service to citizens, like scanning license plates of cars on public streets, then there is a huge outrage but it is ok for some minimum wage jack-off to monitor us and likely post these pictures/videos to the internet??? It seems like we have our privacy priorities are bass backwards.

RE: The $.25 fix....
By Black1969ta on 7/21/2011 4:21:09 AM , Rating: 2
So the Judge says this is ok because Aaron's owns the Laptop, and only use it rarely???


By that line of Thinking I could own a Victoria's Secret or some any other type of store and install Camera's in all the dressing rooms and Restroom's. Honest Your Honor, We don't observe every woman who goes into the woman's facilities, only once in a while.
Jeez talk about a judge who needs disbarred.
How is this not a violation of wiretapping laws, not even John Q lawman can get away with doing that.
I could understand a Lo-Jack type of Software or hardware in the laptop, but not Remote video or even audio.
On the other hand, for those who don't mind being overexposed, get one be late then put on a show, include something that is rare enough to be able to Bing or Google search, so that if and when it gets onto the Internet you can really sue Aaron's for everything they have.

RE: The $.25 fix....
By TSS on 7/21/2011 5:43:16 AM , Rating: 2
It's pretty straight forward though. The proper balance would be no monitoring. If i'm going to steal a laptop after renting it i would wipe that spy kit along with everything else off the laptop the moment i rented it. It wouldn't even boot up once with their windows or whatever on it. So the software makes no difference in preventing crime in that regard.

It can't be because they need to identify the thief, you can't tell me the place where he rented the laptop isn't loaded with security cameras. The thief might have had a fake ID but not likely a fake face. If somebody else stole it either it's fraud or stupidity and the original borrower should repay the cost of the laptop.

Otherwise, yea, people are still going to not return laptops. Thats the nature of some people, they steal. Hell there's even a thing called "kleptomania", or compulsive stealing. They end up in jail or mental hospitals so they can be helped, or atleast that's the idea. Where in all this comes the regular joe that abides by the rules but still has a stranger looking at his face every so often just to see if he's not doing anything wrong.

Strip out corperate bias my ass. I doubt there's even a single thing in america that hasn't got corperate bias, positive or negative, engrained into it.

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