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The DesignerWare story: When your rented computer spies on you

Gus G. Sentementes

9:58 AM EDT, September 27, 2012

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Here's a harrowing case covered in the New York Times today:

The Federal Trade Commission accused seven computer rental companies of using special software to record images (via webcam) and other personal information through computers their customers rented. The companies took pictures, video, screenshots and more from the computers of people who were renting their devices. People were recorded having sex. Children were recorded, too.

On Tuesday, the companies agreed to a settlement with the FTC, the agency said.

A company called DesignerWare designed the software, with a hidden feature called Detective Mode, and sold it to several rent-to-own stores. Presumably, the software was meant to be used to track computer renters who didn't pay their bill. But the FTC said there was no warning to the consumer that that would happen.

Per the FTC statement:

Detective Mode was a software application embedded in the PC Rental Agent program. At the request of an RTO [rent-to-own] store, DesignerWare would remotely complete the Detective Mode installation process on an individual computer and activate “the Detective.” Detective Mode would surreptitiously log the computer user’s keystrokes, capture screenshots, and take pictures with the computer’s webcam and send the data to DesignerWare’s servers. Neither DesignerWare nor the RTO stores who have used Detective Mode disclosed to computer users that they were being monitored in this manner. Although DesignerWare recommended that Detective Mode be installed and activated only to locate and identify
the person in possession of a lost or stolen computer, DesignerWare did not monitor its
own collection of or limit RTO stores’ access to Detective Mode information to ensure
that the information was obtained and used only for designated purposes.