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Spyware

Brian and Crystal Byrd pose in front of their lawyers office on May 3, 2011 in Casper. The Byrds sued Aaron's Inc. for allegedly installing software that allowed the company to monitor all activity on a computer they rented, including taking photographs. (Dan Cepeda, Star-Tribune File)

DAN CEPEDA

A federal judge allowed a lawsuit filed by a Casper couple to proceed against Aaron’s Inc. for allegedly collecting thousands of secret computer webcam photos and screen shots of customers.

Crystal and Brian Byrd sued rental giant Aaron’s in 2011 after discovering spyware hidden inside their leased computer. A franchise store in Casper used the program to photograph the couple inside their home.

The couple's attorneys have since claimed hundreds of customers were victimized as Aaron's allegedly collected 185,000 emails containing sensitive information — including pictures of nude children and people having sex — from customers, according to an Associated Press report. The Byrds sued Atlanta-based Aaron's in Pennsylvania because the company that made the software, DesignerWare, is from North East, Pennsylvania.

A federal magistrate in Pennsylvania previously ruled against class-action status for the lawsuit to allow other affected customers to be included in the legal action. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decided April 16, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania had abused its discretion. The suit will be reconsidered for class-action status.

The Third Circuit ruling described the spyware as “Orwellian-like” and quoted the Byrd’s complaint as saying, “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.”

The Byrds are being represented by Herman Gerel LLP, of Atlanta; Jamieson & Robinson, LLC, of Casper and Jackson; The Spence Law Firm, LLC, of Jackson; and Levin, Fishbein, Sedran and Berman, of Philadelphia.

“The Byrds really should be recognized for their perseverance,” said attorney John Robinson. “I think it’s a testament to their character that they’ve withstood the test of time and are willing to see this through.”

In 2013, Aaron’s agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission allegations that claimed it played a direct role in the use of spying software. According to the FTC, Aaron's knew the PC Rental Agent software could be highly intrusive and invaded consumers’ privacy when in “Detective Mode.”

The settlement prohibits the company from using software on its rental computers to spy on customers. It also blocks Aaron’s from using any information that’s already been gathered through improper means.

The FTC investigation began after the Byrds filed their lawsuit.

Follow crime and courts reporter Lillian Schrock on Twitter @lillieschrock.

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