Aaron's suit raises broader privacy concerns

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Virtually all modern cellphones track our every step for 911 purposes. We’ve all been spotted on cameras in offices,schools,stores and on interstates. And our credit card bills and store discount programs say a lot about what we like to buy and where we’ve been.

The bottom line:We’re all being watched whether we like it or not.

That’s not likely to change — simply because we won’t let it.

In a computerized world,we’ve willingly given up our right to privacy,or so says Tim O’Neil,a long-time computer security consultant who trains metro Atlanta police departments in cyber investigations.

Yet,a lawsuit filed earlier this week by a Wyoming couple who say an outlet for Atlanta-based furniture chain Aaron’s photographed them through a rented computer has raised new questions about just how invasive the routine tracking of our habits has become.

“We’re already concerned that Americans are tracked,followed and spied on as never before,” said Jay Stanley,a senior policy analyst with the ACLU.

The perils are all around us.

Remember when iPhone owners learned that their handsets had recorded their every move? Or when millions of PlayStation gamers had their identities hacked?

Congress is so concerned that it’s looking at legislation that could scale back some of the digital vulnerability.

Earlier this year,U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier,D-Calif.,introduced legislation designed to curb abuses by companies paid to transfer or store a user’s information.

The Do Not Track Me Online Act,comparable to the national do-not-call listing,stops companies from trading on user information if the user chooses. The bill is limited and wouldn’t,for instance,curtail employer tracking of employees.

All of which points to another alarming fact:Not all invasions of privacy,it seems,are created equal. Employers can do just about anything they want to the people they employ.

But what about when the spy is a stranger?

Such is the case of Brian and Crystal Byrd,the couple who allege that a cyber-snooping component called PC Rental Agent was installed inside a Dell laptop in their home that they leased from a Casper,Wyo.,Aaron’s franchise store.

They’ve filed a lawsuit in which they maintain that a store manager,who mistakenly tried to repossess the computer last December,showed the couple a photo taken by the machine’s webcam of the husband using the computer at home.

Aaron’s has denied that any of its 1,140 corporate stores used the component or had done business with the company that produces it. The company has set up a toll-free number to address customers’ concerns and said it is “conducting a thorough investigation ….”

The spying component was supposedly manufactured by Designerware LLC,a Pennsylvania firm which is also named in the suit.

Tim Kelly,technical support chief for Designerware,said that Aaron’s corporate side was not a Designerware customer.

And the PC Rental program wasn’t intended to activate webcams,only to shut down rented computers that had outstanding payments,he said.

But the technology exists to remotely activate computer audio-visual components,said O’Neil,the computer security consultant,pointing to advanced versions of the LoJack program designed for computers,such as those you might find if you pop into a business center at a hotel or the public library.

All of this,of course,makes many of us uneasy. But that doesn’t mean we’re always willing to trade away the conveniences that come with all of that technology,such as GPS tracking and cell tower triangulation.

“It results in a faster user experience instead of me having to wait three to five minutes for a GPS fix every time I fire up Foursquare to check in to my favorite bar or restaurant,” said Zach Bailey of Chamblee.

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