A national rent-to-own company used software and a special device to spy on a Casper couple who leased one its computers, the couple alleges in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The device allows Aaron’s Inc. to monitor customers’ electronic communications and even photograph them via webcams, Brian and Crystal Byrd allege in the lawsuit. They claim the company never disclosed the Dell laptop it leased to them had the capability to spy on customers.

In the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania, the Byrds say they learned about the monitoring device after a manager at the Aaron’s store in Casper showed them a photograph of Brian Byrd taken remotely using the software.

“After they showed us the picture, I, of course, felt violated,” Crystal Byrd said in an interview Monday. “There are many times I sat in front of that computer with barely nothing on. So I didn’t know if they had taken lots of pictures of us or what.”

Computer privacy experts said the firm has the right to equip its computers with software it can use to shut off the devices remotely if customers stop paying their bills, but they must be told if they’re being monitored.

“If I’m renting a computer ... then I have a right to know what the limitations are, and I have a right to know if they’re going to be collecting data from my computer,” said Annie Anton, a professor and computer privacy expert with North Carolina State University.

Defendants

The lawsuit names Aaron’s, a Georgia-based company with 1,500 stores in the U.S. and Canada, and Aspen Way Enterprises, the franchisee that operates the Casper store. The Byrds’ attorneys allege the defendants violated federal law prohibiting the unlawful interception of electronic communications.

“As we allege in the lawsuit, since at least 2007, and likely before, the Aaron’s defendants have secretly installed this spying device or software on their rent-to-own computers,” said Casper lawyer John Robinson, one of several attorneys representing the Byrds. “And that’s based on our investigation.”

The complaint also names as a defendant DesignerWare LLC, the Pennsylvania company that makes the monitoring device. The device, called PC Rental Agent, is soldered into the computer’s motherboard and can’t be easily detected or uninstalled, according to the suit.

The Byrds want the court to declare their case a class action, and are seeking unspecified damages and attorneys’ fees. The privacy act allows for a penalty of $10,000 or $100 per day per violation, plus punitive damages and other costs, the lawsuit said.

An Aaron’s attorney, David Katz, said Tuesday he was unfamiliar with the lawsuit. He said he was hoping to issue a response after reviewing a copy of the lawsuit.

When reached by phone, DesignerWare owner Tim Kelly said he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit. Kelly said he had only recently learned that the complaint had been filed.

On the PC Rental Agent website, the company states its device is “absolutely” legal. It tells clients they can decide for themselves whether to inform customers about the monitoring product.

“Some rent-to-own dealers like to make their customers aware of it, thinking this will help defer them from doing acts that would force them to activate the Agent,” the website states. “Others don’t reveal it.”

The Byrds say they were never told about the device or monitoring software.

“I never thought in a million years anybody would do something like that,” Brian Byrd said. “I read the contract. I read every word of it, and it doesn’t say anything in the contract about it either.”

‘A huge invasion’

Crystal Byrd, a 24-year-old student and certified nurse assistant, said she leased the Dell laptop from Aaron’s in July. She used the computer for school. Brian Byrd, a 26-year-old who works for a company that moves oil rigs, liked to play poker on the laptop.

Their agreement with Aaron’s required the Byrds to pay off the lease by Nov. 15, 2010. The couple says they bought the computer outright on Oct. 1.

On Dec. 22, a manager for the Aaron’s store in Casper went to the Byrds’ home and demanded the computer. He claimed the Byrds had defaulted on their lease, according to the lawsuit.

The manager showed the couple a picture of Brian Byrd on the couch, playing computer poker, Byrd said. Byrd was so shocked by the photograph that he had to sit down.

“It’s a terrible feeling,” he said. “It’s a huge invasion.”

The manager left without the laptop. The Byrds called the Casper Police Department.

Brian Byrd said he turned the computer over to investigators and later learned that a detective spoke with staff members at the Aaron’s store.

Casper Police Sgt. Steve Schulz said an investigation into the incident is ongoing.

The subsequent law enforcement investigation determined that “one or more” of the Aaron’s defendants routinely installed the PC Rental Agent device on all of its rent-to-own computers, the lawsuit claims. Investigators also learned that data captured by the device was transmitted to a central server in Pennsylvania and then made available to Aaron’s stores throughout the country.

Two attorneys who are experts on the relevant computer privacy laws, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, said it’s difficult to tell if either was broken, though both agree the company went too far.

Peter Swire, an Ohio State professor, said using a software “kill switch” is legal because companies can protect themselves from fraud and other crimes.

“But this action sounds like it’s stretching the self-defense exception pretty far,” Swire said, because the software “was gathering lots of data that isn’t needed for self-protection.”

Further, Swire said the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act “prohibits unauthorized access to my computer over the Internet. The renter here didn’t authorize this kind of access.”

Fred Cate, an information law professor at Indiana University, agrees that consent is required but said the real question might be: “Whose consent?”

Courts have allowed employers to record employee phone calls because the employers own the phones. Similar questions arise as digital technology becomes more omnipresent, Cate said.

“Should Google let you know they store your search terms? Should Apple let you know they store your location? Should your employer let you know ‘We store your email?’” Cate said.

If the Byrds’ claims are true, Cate said Aaron’s made an error in not notifying customers.

“We always talk about deterrence value. Well, it doesn’t make sense to put [the software] on there without telling people what it can do,” Cate said. “That’s why we all put alarm signs in front of our houses, even if we don’t have alarms.”

Star-Tribune staff writer William Browning and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Joshua Wolfson at (307) 266-0582 or at josh.wolfson@trib.com. Visit http://trib.com/news/opinion/blogs/wolfjammies/ to read his blog. Follow him on Twitter @joshwolfson.

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