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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: I don't get it
By cjohnson2136 on 7/20/2011 4:40:02 PM , Rating: 3
The root problem IMHO is we don't teach basic home finance in school.

I would agree my brother-in-law just graduated high school and opened a checking account recently so he has one for when he goes into the army. When he got his first statement in the mail and it talked about balancing your checkbook he looked at me and said, "WTF does that mean". It was seriously a facepalm moment. At least when I was in high school they had a class that thought basic money management skills which I think should be a requirement. You can know all the science and math you want but if you can't balance a check book or know how to save to money you are screwed.

RE: I don't get it
By TSS on 7/21/2011 5:17:05 AM , Rating: 2
Schools shouldn't need to. I'm sorry but i'm a highschool dropout, i've never seen an economics class in my life, but i've got excellent finances.

I'm not in debt, i've got more money saved up then most people double my income have, i've got a home fully furnished bought with saved up money, and i try to save atleast $1 every month as a minimum, and preferably as much as i can, with happens 9/12 months in a year. Even so, there are months where you simply lose money because of coinciding effects, like march for me when a lot of people i know have their birthday and all those presents add up, but i'm well aware of that and make sure i tighten my belt in februari so i save more.

How am i able to do this you ask? Not some magical accountant book or course, school education or even talent (i used to just give money away when i was very young, it didn't have any value for me). It's parenting. My dad has always taught me to be responsible with money, that it didn't grow on trees etc. He was never afraid to tell me some of the family finances when i asked for it. I often heard something like "well the city wants another $400 in taxes but it's ok i've got more then enough buffer to cover that".

He didn't teach me economics either. Hell when i go to super market i hardly ever look or remember prices, yet almost always end up with the same amount of money spent, never more then i can afford. He taught me common sense on the matter. That, if you want to live a comfertable life, you do not spend beyond your means. And if you do, you can live a much more enjoyable life then the discomfort you recieve when your finances catch up to you.

Parenting is the awnser. Not blaming schools.

And if that doesn't convince you, in addition to not having any debt i also have a 56" HDTV and 2 computers while getting about $20,000 a year. *Just* from finanical common sense. Not even any dirty tricks required, i hate being a jackass.

RE: I don't get it
By JediJeb on 7/21/2011 11:05:29 AM , Rating: 2
You sir have commonsense, something that comes naturally for some, and is the opposite of what most school kids are being taught right now.

Honestly this is exactly how our government should be acting with our money, and so should the rest of us. I do have some debts that I am paying off but I also take away from that the fact that I can changes some of my prior habits to avoid it in the future. Like not getting engaged to someone who looks at the bank statement online and sees $400 in the bank and even though she just wrote a rent check for $350 thinks she still has $400 to spend. I won't make that mistake again.

The hardest thing to convince people in general of is that they do not "Need" the 56" HDTV, but if they can save up the money, they can splurge on it without causing a problem. I still don't one a flat screen TV of any type, and I hope my 31" CRT lasts a little longer until I save up the money for something nicer, but even after spending $900 in cash for it back in 1995 it still works so something better is a "want" not a "need".

RE: I don't get it
By cjohnson2136 on 7/21/2011 11:24:09 AM , Rating: 2
I would definitely agree with as I am the same with my money. But the issue is there are plenty of people with no common sense and with the parents that don't have the ability to teach them the right thing because the parent does not know the right thing. I am not suggesting a course in economics I am suggesting a simple math course that teaches them how to handle money. The problem is, yes you might be a high school drop out and have the common sense but I would say a much larger majority don't have that common sense with no one teaching them the right thing.

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