Tuesday 25 September 2012

Rent-to-own computers secretly film renters

This week in creepy:

If you’re at all familiar with “rent-to-own” computer companies, you know that the basic premise allows customers to rent rather than buy a computer, ideally letting users constantly upgrade to new technology. What you probably didn’t know is that several of these companies are watching you during your most intimate of moments.
This guy definitely wishes he made his payments on time.

Ars Technica reported today that seven of these rent-to-own companies have settled federal charges in the United States, admitting they used spyware on rented computers to monitor locations, usernames, passwords and even webcam activity for more than 420,000 customers.

The companies used monitoring software called PC Rental Agent — developed by Pennsylvania based company DesignerWare. According to the civil complaint filed earlier this year, the software was distributed to more than 1,600 rental stores in the U.S., Canada and Australia and is supposed to be used to monitor the location of rented computers. Unfortunately, distributors decided it would be a good idea to abuse the software, using a feature called “Detective Mode” to monitor all computer activity. As you may have assumed by the name, Detective Mode was designed to help locate and possibly disable computers if payments become delinquent. Unfortunately, it looks like it ended up taking a turn for the creepy.
In numerous instances, data gathered by Detective Mode has revealed private, confidential, and personal details about the computer user.  For example, keystroke logs have displayed usernames and passwords for access to email accounts, social media websites, and financial institutions.  Screenshots have captured additional confidential and personal information, including medical records, private emails to doctors, employment applications containing Social Security numbers, bank and credit card statements, and discussions of defense strategies in a pending lawsuit.  When activated, Detective Mode can also cause a computer’s webcam to surreptitiously photograph not only the computer user, but also anyone else within view of the camera.  In numerous instances, Detective Mode webcam activations have taken pictures of children, individuals not fully clothed, and couples engaged in sexual activities. [FTC]
Somewhat shockingly, the settlement involved no cash compensation, but only an agreement that Detective Mode would no longer be used to monitor users.

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