Court Refuses To Stop Secret Web Spycams From Running On Rental Laptops

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 the very least receive an injunction to stop allowing the use of the software until the case is settled right?

Not to the judge, who refused to order and injunction on the grounds that the family was no longer in possession of the laptop so no further harm could come to them, as for everyone else still using their Aaron’s laptops, the judge had this to say to them:

Moreover, it is purely conjecture that the other members of the putative class will be subjected to remote access of personal information.

This logic is both unsettling and illogical. Basically the judge is claiming that if the family is not subject to remote access, then such injunction would matter anyway. However, if they are subject to remote access the injunction wouldn’t be of any use. Relatively thinking, the judge’s claim is twisted around: It might not be a possibility, so there is no reason to prevent it. The court could issue the injunction, but if people aren’t subject to that kind of remote access to their personal information, then nothing would happen.

On the other hand, the judge claims that the family has a weak case since the CFAA computer hacking law they are claiming requires interception of electronic communications which the court is unsure if snapping a photo of you captures electronic communications. Which doesn’t raise obvious legal questions in the least. Honestly, if someone is spying on you via a webcam, then isn’t that the same as spying on a desktop? The obvious solution is that both should be seen as a violation of the law, but it is a very unique question.

But like most who are reading this, Internet Lawyer Venkat Balasubramani was surprised to hear the denial of the injunction as well, saying:

Yikes! Privacy class actions seem out of control to me, but I’ll admit even I was surprised by this result. I’m equally surprised that the Aaron’s-affiliated defendants did not all just stipulate to suspending use of the software until things were sorted out. (Aarons, Inc. did, but its franchisee Aspen Way did not. In fact, Aspen Way did not participate in the hearing, which makes the denial of injunctive relief all the more perplexing.) Setting aside whether the court was correct in its view of the merits of the case, the court takes an unduly restrictive view of the facts when it states that no “interception” of an electronic communication occurred because there was no evidence that Mr. Byrd was online or communicating with someone else when the image in question was captured. Surely, given the ex-employee’s testimony as to what type of information was viewed through use of the software, it’s fair to presume that the Aspen Way employees are not sitting around making sure that the capture only occurred while the computer user was offline or not communicating with another person.

If you take a step back and look at the grand scheme of this ruling, the opportunity for more software products that secretly snap photos of you or your family via webcam is basically being looked at as an acceptable act as long as there’s no “communication” going on. The big question here is, if Aaron’s is allowed to spy on you via webcam, what is there to stop the Government from being allowed to as well, or pedo’s from watching your child, or anyone else watching you or your loved ones…the list can go on and on.

The full case file can be read here.

Learn more the author of this post:

Andrew Wilson
Andrew has been poking and prodding computers for 11 years who occasionally writes about Technology and Video Games while working towards getting his Bachelors in Computer Engineering. He is also one of the contributors to the Let's Play's on the site.
  • Your Name

    you had me up to the end, but when you when off on the gubmint and scary pedophiles i wrote you off as just another BS artist.

  • Andrew Wilson

    I wasn’t trying to sound like scare tactics or BS, I was just trying to give the basis viewpoint of what could POTENTIALLY happen if you allowed this kind of behavior. Anyone could learn to write code to use your webcam as a spying tool, I was just pointing out how the judge didn’t take into effect that although this right now is being used in a business perspective, it doesn’t change the fact that it could easily be used for the wrong purpose.
    I was just trying to make sure people understood how easy this could turn into a bad situation. 

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  • Michael White

    I thought that was a great idea for a rental company. but I would rather put a GPS inside so I would always know where my rental unit was should it take flight.

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  • Anonymous

    I think the judge is right that this is not “interception” and therefore not subject to the CFAA. Interception requires breaking into someone else’s communications. Setting up your own sensor and having it transmit information back to you is not interception. Note that if interception is extended to include such monitoring, it would mean that statutes prohibiting interception of communications could properly be used to criminalize recording of police officers in public, something that has been attempted, but which is a very bad idea.

    That said, the plaintiffs should win, but on invasion of privacy grounds.

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