Rental laptops: We can SEE you

Finally scraped up enough money to rent a laptop? Turns out the rental company may be getting a little more of your information than you thought. Seems they have the ability to secretly turn on the webcam and take a look around, especially if they suspect shenanigans on your part, like maybe not returning their equipment.

Back in May, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Wyoming couple who found out about the software after being shown a picture of one of them, Brian Byrd, sitting in front of the laptop, taken by the webcam. Turns out Aaron’s Inc., a rental company, allegedly had installed software by Designerware LLC, designed to track potentially wayward users’ activities. This was brought to light during a home visit from an Aaron’s manager to repossess the laptop for alleged non-payment. Prior to the couple proving to the manager that they had paid, he mentioned the company had a picture, and presented it to Brian. The couple felt there were potentially legal issues at hand, so pressed on with the suit.

The judge involved with the case has now refused to issue an injunction in a proposed class action against Aaron’s, based on the couple no longer having possession of the laptop, and “Moreover, it is purely conjecture that the other members of the putative class will be subjected to remote access of personal information.” While it seems highly unlikely the national rental company only installed the software on a single laptop, the judge refuses to press the case farther, for the time being. If other users similarly situated are to continue with court proceedings, we will see if the court finds the technology is being used lawfully. The Byrds allege they were greatly concerned about the company using the software to take pictures when the laptop may have been left on during private times in their household, which they didn’t want to necessarily share, especially without warning, and to strangers.

The good news? Laptops, especially handy little Netbooks and the like, are really competitively priced these days. A keen shopper can snap up a deal for a few hundred bucks, and set your own destiny regarding webcam usage. Still, expect privacy advocates to watch legal cases determining just how much can legally be harvested from a laptop/webcam without stepping over the line of privacy law.

Author Cameron Camp, ESET

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20 Jul 2011
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