Computer rental companies spying on customers


You get to the stage where you think you’ve just about heard it all and then along comes something like this! What follows is the sad but true story of PC rental companies, a software called PC Rental Agent, and a serious invasion of consumer privacy.

PC Rental Agent is a remote monitoring application, developed and marketed by a company called DesignerWare, which is primarily intended for tracking, disabling or remotely wiping rented computers – obviously contrived for those cases where customers default on their rental agreement. However, according to a US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) statement, PC Rental Agent has been utilized by rental companies for far more sinister forms of surveillance… using a feature called ‘Detective Mode’ to collect private and confidential information such as; usernames and passwords to access email accounts and social media sites, medical records, Social Security Numbers and bank account numbers, and in some cases even taking webcam pictures of people in their homes.

Secretly Installed Software on Rented Computers Collected Information, Took Pictures of Consumers in Their Homes, Tracked Consumers’ Locations

Seven rent-to-own companies and a software design firm have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they spied on consumers using computers that consumers rented from them, capturing screenshots of confidential and personal information, logging their computer keystrokes, and in some cases taking webcam pictures of people in their homes, all without notice to, or consent from, the consumers.

According to reports, PC Rental Agent is installed on 420,000 systems worldwide through 1617 rent-to-own stores based across the United States, Canada and Australia. The FTC had this to say regarding the nefarious activities… “Consumers are harmed by DesignerWare’s unwarranted invasion into their homes and lives and its capture of the private details of individual and family life, including, for example, images of visitors, children, family interactions, partially undressed individuals, and couples engaged in intimate activities.”

So what punitive measures has the FTC settlement imposed? The US consumer protection agency has banned DesignerWare and the seven rent-to-own stores named in the complaint from utilizing monitoring software, such as Detective Mode, and from using deception to gather information on consumers. It also prohibits the use of geo-location tracking without consumer consent and notice. DesignerWare is also barred from providing others with the means to commit illegal acts and will be monitored by the FTC for compliance for the next 20 years.

Well, I guess that is better than nothing but… is it just me or does that appear a little incongruous when compared to the heavy fines and jail sentences faced by individuals who infringe on copyrights for example? I wonder if the victims of this gross invasion of privacy would be satisfied that justice has been done.

Me, I don’t believe the terms of the settlement go anywhere near far enough. What do you think?


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About the Author

Jim Hillier

Jim is the resident freeware aficionado at DCT. A computer veteran with 30+ years experience who first started writing about computers and tech back in the days when freeware was actually free. His first computer was a TRS-80 in the 1980s, he progressed through the Commodore series of computers before moving to PCs in the 1990s. Now retired (aka an old geezer), Jim retains his passion for all things tech and still enjoys building and repairing computers for a select clientele... as well as writing for DCT, of course.

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