Renting things is always a bit of a gamble. What if you rent a car and the previous renter left an ounce of weed in the glovebox? That’s not going to go over too well when you’re reaching for the registration at a routine traffic stop. And how about a hotel room? You know that bedspread is dirtier than the pole at a strip club. But renting a laptop, that seems like a pretty safe bet, right? What’s could go wrong?
A lot, actually. The Federal Trade Commission is in the process of settling charges with seven — not one, but seven — computer rental companies for spying on their customers through rent-to-own laptops. With preinstalled software meant to keep renters paying their bills on time, these companies tracked renters’ locations, logged keystrokes, stole bank account information, took screenshots, read emails, and even used the webcam to photograph people having sex in their own homes. The spying affected as many as 420,000 customers.
It all happened through a couple of programs made by DesignerWare. At a very basic level, this software provided the rental companies with a “kill switch” in case the laptop was ever stolen or the renter stopped paying his bills. But another feature called “Detective Mode” offered much more functionality. While ostensibly installed to help the rental companies track down late payments and recover rented computers from delinquent accounts, Detective Mode also gave the stores access to pretty much anything on the computer, in real time. That includes access to the keyboard, the screen and the webcam. You can just picture the late night employees at Premier Rental Purchase opening some beers and eating some snacks while they streamed in live sex scenes from their customers’ bedrooms. Sick!
It gets worse. The software also prompted users to fill out a fake registration pop-up that wouldn’t go away until the renter input all kinds of personal data like home address, phone number and email. "An agreement to rent a computer doesn't give a company license to access consumers' private emails, bank account information, and medical records, or, even worse, webcam photos of people in the privacy of their own homes," said Jon Leibowitz, Chairman of the FTC, on Tuesday afternoon. "The FTC orders today will put an end to their cyber spying."
For now, the charges against the companies aren’t criminal charges since the FTC only has civil authority. For the rental companies involved, though, you can’t buy this kind of bad press. If they’re spying on customers through their rented laptops, just image what kinds of surprises their other home appliances might hold in store.