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: I don't get it
By Aloonatic on 7/20/2011 5:22:11 PM , Rating: 2
I think you in the US struggle with the same issue that we are in the UK with your economy and you're right about "evil conservatives" who actually want to make it so that the country lives within its means.

Fortunately, the British people just about woke up in time and we have a government in place that is willing to make the unpopular but necessary financial decisions that are needed.

One of the problems that we faced was that many of "the people" and the previous UK government have got themselves caught up in a mutually beneficial lie, i.e. that all the financial problems that we are facing is due to a small handful of highly paid bankers.

The reality is that bankers did make mistakes and leant too much, but they weren't roaming the street with machine guns forcing people to take on personal debts, and the British government wasn't complaining about the growth in the retail sector that was fuelled by them. They'd been told that recessions were a thing of the past, so they figured that they just needed to make minimum payments and if they wanted something new, just get another credit card.

Sadly, many are still in denial, and few realise that it's the vast amount of personal debt, rather than national debt, that is the real mill stone around our economies neck. People know that they can;t just get more credit any more, and banks are being more responsible, but no one seems happy to put 2 and 2 together to realise that this is the main reason why fewer people are spending on the high street.

No one wants to admit it though. It's aaaalllll the bankers' fault, they were just innocent victims, and so was the government that they voted in who kept on giving them more and more benefits and handouts.

For many who can't get credit now, renting is the only way, and suddenly there are more electrical rental shops popping up. I assume something similar is happening in the US too.

RE: I don't get it
By bigdawg1988 on 7/21/2011 2:08:16 PM , Rating: 2
For many who can't get credit now, renting is the only way

There is always the library... unless you're using it for porn or something. Which brings up another matter... how can they afford the internet plan when they can't afford the computer? What is really sad is that they probably won't even use the darn thing except for surfing the internet anyway, which you can do for free at almost any library. Problem is, they were never instructed by their parents, who were never instructed by their parents, and so the cycle almost never ends....

I wouldn't rent a damn thing from Aaron's, except MAYBE a big screen TV for the Superbowl or something, and I'd make sure I had a bunch of friends to share the cost with even then.

RE: I don't get it
By snakeInTheGrass on 7/25/2011 2:50:28 PM , Rating: 2
Uh, well the bankers / mortgage brokers were the ones running around telling people - people who I'm sure they knew didn't know any better, since otherwise they would never have signed up for these 'magic' loans - that they no longer needed to put any money down, didn't need to provide employment information or financial history, and that the value of the homes could only go up. (Not to mention jokes like interest only.)

Now that's something that someone with common sense wouldn't buy into, but for the class of people they were trying to get into taking out loans, that sounds just great - much better than pay-day loan or another loan on the car.

For the banks it meant closing fees at the time of signing and some sweeeet bonuses for the brokers and the bank execs. And then a government bailout that made them even richer.

See, everyone wins.

I don't absolve people for their stupidity - they were idiots for not even trying to figure out that if it seems to good to be true, it probably is, but at the same time, they were just idiots.

The people running the financial institutions were deliberate. Would YOU give a loan to someone you don't know with no collateral and no information about their employment? Want to give me a big loan? They were greedy, plain and simple - money 'earned' and on the books now meant HUGE bonuses, long-term issues with the loans be damned. And if by the 'government that they voted in' you mean Obama & Co., this was all going on under Bush's watch. Both parties turned a blind eye in exchange for campaign kickbacks and to woo voters, so please let's not make this some bogus red/blue party pissing contest, they're all corrupt.

FWIW, I worked at one of the 'evil' companies during those years, and I can say at least some of the IT peons wondered just what in the hell the execs were thinking with the business policies they were pushing since they didn't seem remotely reasonable for a responsible lender. And they weren't. At least the answer is clear now - bailout, giant bonuses, and retirement. Nice deal if you can swing it by running your business in a negligent manner, huh?

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