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Leased Computers Spied On Users' Personal Data And Photos, FTC Finds

Ever feel like someone is watching you? The Federal Trade Commission finds you could be right — if you've used a rental computer.
Ever feel like someone is watching you? The Federal Trade Commission finds you could be right — if you've used a rental computer.

Rent-to-own companies may have a right to use software to track the computers they lease out — and disable them remotely if a customer stops making payments.

But they don't have the right to spy on their customers, which is exactly what the Federal Trade Commission says took place. The agency found that the compromised data included everything from passwords to highly personal images.

Seven rent-to-own companies and a software design firm, DesignerWare, have settled with the FTC on charges that they spied on users — "by 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 the FTC.

The software at the heart of the case, PC Rental Agent, was licensed by 1,617 rent-to-own stores in the United States, Canada, and Australia. As of August 2011, the FTC says, the software was on 420,000 computers worldwide.

The part of PC Rental Agent that was deemed illegal was something called Detective Mode. When rental companies turned on the feature, computers were able to transmit sensitive and private information without users' knowledge. It included a fake — and persistent — pop-up window that essentially required a user to enter a name, address and phone number before it would go away.

Sensitive data that was transmitted to rental companies included user names and passwords, credit card information, and webcam images of people engaged in sexual activities.

The FTC complaint involved now-bankrupt software company DesignerWare, along with these seven rent-to-own companies: Aspen Way Enterprises, Watershed Development Corp., Showplace Rent-to-Own, J.A.G. Rents, ColorTyme, Premier Rental Purchase, and Premier Rental Purchase.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maureen Pao is an editor, producer and reporter on NPR's Digital News team. In her current role, she is lead digital editor and producer for All Things Considered. Her primary responsibility is coordinating, producing and editing high-impact online components for complex, multipart show projects and host field reporting.
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