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Lawsuit: Rental firm spies on users

PITTSBURGH — A major furniture rental chain provides its customers with computers that allow it to track keystrokes, take screenshots and even snap webcam pictures of renters using the devices at home, a Wyoming couple said in a lawsuit Tuesday.

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.

But the couple who sued Atlanta-based Aaron's Inc. said they had no clue the computer they rented last year was equipped with a device that could spy on them. Brian Byrd, 26, and his wife, Crystal, 24, said they didn't even realize that was possible until a store manager in Casper came to their home on Dec. 22.

The manager tried to repossess the computer because he mistakenly believed the Byrds hadn't paid off their rent-to-own agreement. When Brian Byrd showed the manager a signed receipt, the manager showed Byrd a picture of Byrd using the computer — taken by the computer's webcam.

Byrd demanded to know where the picture came from, and the manager "responded that he was not supposed to disclose that Aaron's had the photograph," the lawsuit said.

Aaron's, which bills itself as the nation's leader in the sales and lease ownership of residential furniture, consumer electronics and home appliances, said the lawsuit was meritless. It said it respects its customers' privacy and hasn't authorized any of its corporate stores to install the software described in the lawsuit.

Aaron's, which also manufactures furniture and bedding, said it believes that none of its more than 1,140 company-operated stores had used the software.

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