How hidden spyware let PC rental companies capture photos and keystrokes of customers

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Back in September, the FTC admonished several PC rental companies for spying on customers through the use of utilities developed by DesignerWare. PC Rental Agent, as the software was known, allowed retailers including Aaron's to monitor customers that had fallen behind on their payments. But the invasiveness of DesignerWare's tool was extremely alarming; in addition to logging keystrokes (and thus sensitive data like social security numbers and bank account information), it also secretly recorded webcam video of people in their homes. Since then, DesignerWare has settled with the FTC and taken a hard dive into bankruptcy, but a new report from Ars Technica sheds even more light on the measures these companies pursued to observe unknowing customers.

No ordinary collections agent

It all started when an Aaron's employee visited Bryan Byrd, a delinquent customer who owed substantial rental fees; the worker pulled out a photo of Byrd using the laptop in question that had been captured with PC Rental Agent's "Detective Mode." He also produced logs of what Byrd and his wife had typed on the computer. That single event led to a privacy uproar which ultimately prompted FTC intervention.

Detective Mode contained several "levels," according to the report, with each stepping up the rate of spying activity. Level one grabbed a screenshot and 30 characters of key strokes at two-minute intervals for an hour, eventually emailing that data to a manager at the PC rental company. Level two gathered a constant stream of webcam shots and keystrokes until the process was remotely stopped. PC Rental Agent even recorded a computer's geolocation data by logging IP addresses and names of local Wi-Fi networks. The situation is a troubling tale of what deceptive companies can dig up on customers without their knowledge. As such, it's hard to argue with the fate DesignerWare ultimately met.

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