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Court Allows Webcam Spying On Rental Laptops 240

tekgoblin writes "Back in May there was a class action lawsuit filed against the rental company Aaron's, which had secretly installed spying software that would turn on a laptop's webcam, take pictures and then send them back to the company. Overall it seemed like a large invasion of privacy, which should at least warrant an injunction to stop use of the software until the case is settled, right? Not to the judge, who refused to order an injunction on the grounds that the family was no longer in possession of the laptop. As for everyone else still using their Aaron's laptops, the judge had this to say to them (PDF): 'Moreover, it is purely conjecture that the other members of the putative class will be subjected to remote access of personal information.'"
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Court Allows Webcam Spying On Rental Laptops

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  • So... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cowboy76Spain ( 815442 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2011 @05:19AM (#36820904)

    ... it is okay if anyone bugs the judge's house?

    Because until you actually record/hear anything, "it is purely conjecture that someone will use the micros to remote access of personal information".

    • Re:So... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by GrumblyStuff ( 870046 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2011 @05:36AM (#36820960)

      I'm guessing he had rented a laptop and was recorded while fucking various farm animals.

    • No, my first question was "I wonder if the Judge Susan Baxter would be okay if she learned that her U.S. government IT staff were secretly taking webcam pics of her with her federal-owned laptop." After all, it's not her property right? It belongs to the federal government. So I'm sure she would be totally cool with her IT people taking random webcam footage of her whenever they felt like it.

      • by sumdumass ( 711423 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2011 @09:58AM (#36822874) Journal

        I do not think it would matter what you think she would think. In fact, she makes it clear in her statements that she would not like it.

        The judge basically stated in the decision that she was bound by law not to provide the injunction as it would be over turned in the direct appeals court to her court due to several reasons. She cited precedent with these reasons too. First, they can only consider the immediate and irreparable harm of the named parties to the suit, not class parties who might be subjected. The named parties would not suffer any immediate harm since they no longer have a computer with the software on it. Another problem was that common sense conclusions cannot be injected into a case. She spends a good deal of time talking about this in which she notes several reversals when this happened in the past and gives notice that the court can only consider things brought up within the complaint.

        There are more problems with providing an injunction complete with citations of previous cases to back her reasoning. If someone would initiate a suit alleging direct harm and capable of showing continued harm that doesn't skip important issues in the complaint, she could order an injunction and extend it to everyone putatively involved. But her hands are tied with the way this case have panned out to date as she cited several ways the injunction would be overturned easily if she had granted it.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2011 @05:25AM (#36820932)

    Should I go ahead and uninstall that wiretapping software, there's nothing I'm liable for, am I? I mean, I just removed very obviously malicious software, the rental place should be happy that I did it. They would surely have informed me if they installed something like this deliberately.

    • "Accidentally" place tape or something over the webcam. After all if you're renting it, as long as you cause no damage to it, it should be fine.
      • by robably ( 1044462 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2011 @06:05AM (#36821080) Journal

        place tape or something over the webcam

        And disable the microphone. People always forget the microphone.

        • place tape or something over the webcam

          And disable the microphone. People always forget the microphone.

          I think the law is that you can't record audio in a room unless someone in the room knows it is being recorded. Recording video (such as the webcam) is not "illegal" especially given the legal precedence this judge just created.

          Of course, this spyware the rental company was using probably wasn't TOO concerned with the finer nuances of the law... I'm sure there were disclaimers and whatnot - "customer ensures all use of this software is legal, blah blah blah, we're not liable if you use it illegally, blah b

          • This all varies from state to state. Federal law is at least one person party to the conversation needs to be aware of the recording. Some state make it clear that all parties need to be aware of the recording. Most of the laws concerning the recordings state something about the recording being done for or used in a legal actions.

            Also, most states now make it illegal to record video without an obvious notice of the recording and never in places where someone expects a level of privacy. This stems from a ras

      • "Accidentally" write a program that will replace the camera's video stream with a constant loop of 2 Girls, with some subliminal flashes of goatse for good measure. Let them monitor that one.

        (For additional fun, try to "accidentally" get the program to detect when the monitoring by a human begins, and start to stream some webcam porn instead. For 15 seconds. Then when you know you have their attention-- see above)
    • I wonder how far this will be allowed to go. Can they (the rental company) install key loggers? Can they save your internet history? How long can they keep this information? What happens to this information if the company folds and assets have to be sold off?

      Could this be expanded to other rental devices? What about "rent to own" stuff? Leased stuff? Could they bug a car with cameras and mics?

      Help! Help! I need a lawyer!


  • by L4t3r4lu5 ( 1216702 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2011 @05:38AM (#36820978)
    How about "Boycott Aaron's [] until they stop including spying software in their rental laptops".

    Don't give me "Some people can't afford to boycott them" as there will be other companies who don't do this, and if not there's a business opportunity for someone.
    • Have you ever seriously considered renting anything from Aarons? The prices they charge make it obvious that their only customers are people who don't understand basic arithmetic. To rent a washing machine for 1 week was 25% of the purchase price - to rent it for a month, you could have a brand new one delivered and installed by a (non-discount) appliance store.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    So, when are you Americans going to exercise your Second Amendment rights and just shoot this bastard?

  • by Issarlk ( 1429361 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2011 @05:46AM (#36821014)
    1 - give rented laptop to family's teen child 2 - Let her do what teens do in front of webcams 3 - sue company for creation of CP (bonus) - eat popcorn as you watch SWAT teams storming their office. 5 - PROFIT!
    • by TheCarp ( 96830 )

      Better. Get your own cam. Make a cheapo amature film. make sure the laptop only ever spends lots of time on and in positions showing raunchy sex and what looks like a murder and cleanup.

      • So that the "monitoring technicians" at the renting company can fap during their long alone hours of work? What's the point?
        • by TheCarp ( 96830 )

          I was thinking the point was to get them to cause a huge mess over the whole deal, get the police involved, and waste everyones time.... making them look like even bigger jackasses in the end, and showing one more reason why this is completely unjustified. ... and because it would be funny to show the cops the amature video production and then get all indigent about privacy violation.

        • Far better to plant a camera in the home of the company's CEO and route the feed back through your laptop.
  • by Viol8 ( 599362 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2011 @06:18AM (#36821114) Homepage

    Thats what I always do - perhaps I'm paranoid but it only takes a few seconds and it resolves all of these sorts of issues along with malware checking you out. But then I don't use skype or do webchats , perhaps for someone who did it would be a nuisance but if not I recommend everyone to do it.

  • Oh look people's rights being stomped on again, seems like a common theme these days. I hope goverments don't sit around wondering why their populations are pissed off at them, cause they sure as hell don't have to look far.
    • ... to increasingly hold the general public in disdain. I'm not sure where this attitude is coming from , perhaps the law profession is attracting the wrong type of person or the wrong sort is being promoted to the judiciary by like minded misfits of a similar persuation already entrenched there, but its a worrying precedant either way.

      • Actually, if you think about, an independent judicial system is supposed to hold the general public in disdain. That's why it is independent. The problem is that specific parts the the general public is not held in disdain: corporations, Judges appear to be hypnotized by them. I wonder why...
        • by Viol8 ( 599362 )

          "Actually, if you think about, an independent judicial system is supposed to hold the general public in disdain"

          Nonsense. A judicial system should be impartial and evidence based, nothing more. There should be no emotional bias one way or the other.

  • by jklovanc ( 1603149 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2011 @06:31AM (#36821172)

    The software is only supposed to be used to find the location of stolen equipment or equipment out of lease so that the equipment can be easily retrieved. The problem was that when the plaintiffs paid cash for the laptop the cash was diverted by a dishonest employee and never got recorded. As far as the manager knew the laptop was out of lease and needed to be retrieved. The plaintiffs failed to make the case that the software was being used on a regular basis to spy on owners or renters of the equipment. There was evidence that the software was being used but the purpose of that use is unclear. Due to that, the injunction was not granted.

    The out of context quote 'Moreover, it is purely conjecture that the other members of the putative class will be subjected to remote access of personal information' is salacious at best. Not it says "will be subjected" not "can be subjected". It is not proven that other renters will have their money stolen by an dishonest employee and their laptop considered out of lease.

    • Normal people: "I don't understand why he made that decision I don't like. I should really research it further until I do."
      Slashdotters: "I don't understand why he made that decision I don't like. Therefore, he's clearly a corrupt fascist, and should be shot." []

      Actually, to be fair, "Normal people" are not really normal at all.

      • Yep, "normal" people probably wouldn't think twice about it. They probably wouldn't do research either.

      • by mwvdlee ( 775178 )

        Depends on what you consider "normal". If "normal" means "sensible and responsible" then yes. If "normal" means "average, typical, according to the statistical norm" then it's probably more like "What decision? Stop bothering me while I'm showing my dick on Chatroulette using this rented laptop I can't afford".
        On a side note, does chatroulette still exist?

    • by ElectricTurtle ( 1171201 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2011 @08:15AM (#36821782)
      The pretense under which this software is expected to be used is immaterial. If I'm a landlord I can't install hidden cameras in my apartments just because I spin it with some bullshit pretense that 'I'll only turn them on when they don't pay the rent, honest!'

      In the first place, a camera doesn't generally help with retrieval or the exaction of payment (outside of blackmail). It's not like people are going to set up their laptops outside where the camera can see street signs and house numbers. When someone is responsible for a system that spies on private persons in their own domiciles, if that system isn't a prima facie violation of anti-voyeurism laws, they are at a minimum responsible to be transparent about controls in place to prevent abuse, and they must get express consent from those they are 'observing', even in most states where single party recording is legal, since they are not physically present.

      I am not a lawyer and the above should not be construed as legal advice.
      • I'll grant you the notion that the pretense for this software is immaterial, largely because the lessee does not have any way of knowing when the software is being used (e.g. if the defendent has an employee who is using said software maliciously.) However, your first point is invalid for the following reasoning:

        Cameras can take pictures of the person using the computer. Those pictures can be provided to law enforcement, who should be able to compare said pictures to photographs in their records (e.g. DMV

    • Mod parent up. (Oops... too late)
      The summary twists the story. I RTFD and think the judge made the only call he could make given the facts presented. I'd call it crappy lawyering before I'd blame the judge.
      Now, don't construe this to think I'm ok with rental agent's behavior. As I recall, the business model for these kinds of organizations typically involves preying on the poor and/or ignorant with rent-to-own schemes that resemble something a loan shark might offer. Spycams and keylogging fit nicel
  • i wonder how long this will last when stores all around the country start getting their storefront glass broken with rocks that have messages about spyware on laptops attached to them...
  • by lcrocker ( 144720 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2011 @06:47AM (#36821246) Homepage

    As usual with coverage of complex legal decisions, the headlines and soundbites don't resemble the decision at all. The case hasn't even begun; the judge did not "allow" the webcams at all. He's just ruling on a preliminary injunction before the case begins: the plaintiff is asking for the judge to issue an order stopping Aaron's from further use of the cameras while the case is going on. The judge is saying here that the injunction is moot because the plaintiff doesn't have the laptop, and hasn't presented any evidence that anyone else is being recorded. The judge is just saying (1) he can't order Aaron's to stop doing something when there's no evidence that they're actually doing it, and (2) the case is weak because the law under which they are suing may not apply (which is true; the plaintiffs ought to be suing under more general privacy torts). Under no stretch of reality does this mean he's "allowing" the use of the webcams.

    • I don't see why lack of evidence that they are actually doing it should be a reason not to have the preliminary injunction. If they are banned from doing something they aren't doing anyway, it doesn't affect them in any way.

      • Because that would go against the entire concept of justice. Preliminary injunctions are serious business and not to be taken lightly. How can you not see why lack of evidence is not enough to grant a preliminary injunction?
    • We don't impeach enough judges.
  • It's basically an anti-theft system. If someone steals Aaron's laptop they'll have a better chance of tracking that person down. I wish my own computer had that feature.

    • You don't need to wish. Install software to do this.

    • I wish my own computer had that feature.

      I think I know of a rent-to-own chain that has them available.

    • Yes, I'm sure that thieves will conveniently set their stolen property outside where it has full view of street signs and house numbers instead of pointing at a nondescript wall in one of a billion buildings somewhere. The best thing it would do is get a picture of the guy that took the device; however with delinquent renters that point is moot since the rental agency already ostensibly knows what the renters look like and where they are supposed to reside.

      The best thing you can do to help recover a stole
    • by TheCarp ( 96830 )

      Ok so each time its rented, generate a new key, give it to the customer. Laptop encrypts each photo. If laptop is stolen the customer can be asked to turn over the key. If not... no privacy issues, and no covert bs going on.

    • by mlts ( 1038732 ) *

      Your computer might. Almost all business line Dells and HPs have a provision for keeping a LoJack for Laptops agent in a part of the ROM where even a BIOS flash can't get rid of it. You can turn it on, install LoJack, and go from there. Additionally, you can have the private files or the whole machine erased from remote.

      Of course you give up privacy in return for this ability so be aware of that.

      Personally, I prefer to pack my own parachute, and use disk encryption so a hardware theft is just only a hard

  • Another user pointed out that this is a pre-trial ruling, but imagine if a ruling like this was passed down to the final verdict. Most all schools like to "lease" their laptops. A ruling with a measure like this attached could harm future cases.
  • Quick Solution (Score:2, Insightful)

    by smcdow ( 114828 )

    A piece of black tape over the camera.

  • ... then what happens once you own it? Does the rental company somehow remove their spying software? Or do they retain the ability to spy on the person who now owns the computer outright?
  • This is 2011 read 1984, if you have any expectation of privacy you can find it on aisle 33 1/3 next to the unicorns.

    A piece of electrical tape over the camera would have solved this. Who still uses webcams?
    • "Who still uses webcams?" I can see from that statement that you haven't been around the several hundred million computer users out there who don't visit /.
  • In one case, someone recording the police (who are public office and should as such reasonably expect no secrecy while in public) is wiretapping, but someone who rents a laptop and is recorded without his consent isn't?
    I see, if i'll ever rent a laptop i'll print out goatse and slap it in app. distance from the camera.
    • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 )

      In one case, someone recording the police (who are public office and should as such reasonably expect no secrecy while in public) is wiretapping, but someone who rents a laptop and is recorded without his consent isn't?

      They probably do agree to it. Something like that would have to be in the rental agreement and contract that they signed. The problem with this whole thing is that the software was only to be turned on if the laptop was stolen/out of lease, which the renters did not believe it to be.

  • Abridged constitutional rights are a irreparable injury, Once your privacy has been abridged, you never get that back. Like free speech, if your denied your right to speak a certain time in a certain place in a certain audience, you never get that back. A fundemental constitutional right.

    Here they were looking for an injunction to stop the practice and this clown has injoined all defendants to not tamper with the stores ability to abridge privacy.

    "we observed that the assertion of First Amendment rights do

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