FTC Shuts Down Digital Spies

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The FTC may have just turned your webcam off for you. Again.

That's the message from a recent settlement between the Federal Trade Commission and a home furnishings chain called Aaron's Rent-to-Own. The Atlanta based franchise was accused of helping its franchisees install and use software on rented computers to track, monitor and spy on customers.

Although billed as security software, the actual features of PC Rental Agent allowed Aaron's employees to gather personal information, collect credit card numbers and take pictures of couples having sex.

,p>According to an agency press release, when active the software "secretly monitored consumers... [It] surreptitiously tracked consumers' locations, captured images through the computers' webcams – including those of adults engaged in intimate activities – and activated keyloggers that captured users' login credentials for email accounts and financial and social media sites."

 

Additional features allowed franchisees to take screen-shots of users' activity, and to present "deceptive software registration screens designed to get computer users to provide personal information."

Although the FTC complaint doesn't allege that the company actually did anything improper with the information, the mere act of collecting it was bad enough. As FTC attorney Julie Mayer explained, there's no plausible relationship between legitimate anti-theft measures and taking secret photographs of consumers in their homes. Aaron's came under investigation at a corporate level for helping local franchises install and use the software and for storing the data on their behalf.

This isn't the first time that the FTC has investigated PC Rental Agent, or even Aaron's, for photographing consumers in their home. The agency brought claims against DesignerWare, the maker of the software, in 2012, and settled in April of this year.

In 2011, a Wyoming couple, Brian and Crystal Byrd also brought a private lawsuit against DesignerWare and an Aaron's franchisee for photographing the couple in their home.

According to Mayer, the most recent charges against Aaron's differed from past claims. Instead of attempting to use or install this software directly, Aaron's facilitated its franchisees in doing so, providing instructions and technical assistance so that local stores could turn on PC Rental Agent's "Detective Mode" and access its data gathering features.

As far as the FTC currently knows, according to Mayer, PC Rental Agent is the only commercial software to offer such invasive features. Other security programs come with more standard functions, such as locating a machine physically and shutting it down remotely. While those have not been challenged by the agency, they do require specific consumer consent.

Under the terms of its settlement, Aaron's will ultimately not have to pay any compensation to its customers. It has been forbidden from using any similar monitoring technology in the future and must get clear consent from consumers about any tracking software it does put on computers moving forward. It has also been ordered to delete and destroy any illicit information it already gathered.

--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.

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