Brad Harrington

Smile For That Birdie Baby!

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A "local" piece, published in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle on May 7th, 2011.


By Bradley Harrington

“You have zero privacy anyway; get over it.” – Scott McNealy, former Sun Microsystems CEO, in a news conference discussing Intel’s decision to disable Pentium III CPU identification features, 1999 –

Ah, the marvels of technology. It seems like you just can’t go much of anywhere these days without being followed around by electronic eyes.

Got an item you need at Wal-Mart? Wave at the vidcam as you stroll through the door. Need to appear in court? You can safely assume that all your movements will be stored in the court’s databases. In a hurry and decide to run a red light? There’s cameras out there that snap shots of that, too.

Which is not to say, of course, that much of this intrusiveness is not necessary and desirable, because it is: Rooted, ultimately, in property protection, property owners have a right to monitor their property in order to observe and/or record the occurrence of crime on their premises. End of story.

Still, some people can carry things a bit too far; how’d you like that laptop you just rented from your local rent-to-own store being used to observe you and take pictures of you while you’re in your bedroom? Think that has anything to do with property protection?

And how would you like it if, in the midst of an argument with the manager of that outfit over your lease agreement, that individual was dumb enough to show you a picture he had taken of you, without your consent, through that laptop’s webcam while you used the system? Think that might set off a few alarms?

If so, then you might want to pay attention to the progress of a recently-filed federal court case focused on all of those allegations:

“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 device at home, a Wyoming couple said in a lawsuit Tuesday.” (“Furniture rental co. spies on PC users,” Associated Press, May 3rd.)

In this lawsuit the litigants, Brian and Crystal Byrd of Casper, “Are suing the national rental retail chain Aaron’s for violation of the Electronics Communications Privacy Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The lawsuit alleges Aaron’s installed PC Rental Agent, a software [program] designed and distributed by a Pennsylvania company by the name of DesignerWare. The lawsuit says PC Rental Agent allows the rental company to monitor, intercept and collect any information/communications from around the world of the computer user.” (“Wyoming couple, rental company spar over privacy,” International Business Times, May 4th.)

If that sends a bit of a chill down your spine, you’re not alone: in an Associated Press interview, Brian Byrd said: “It feels like we were pretty much invaded, like somebody else was in our house. It’s a weird feeling, I can’t really describe it. I had to sit down for a minute after he showed me that picture.”

And Aaron’s? They aren’t having any of it: “Concerning the recent allegations regarding customer privacy and Aaron’s,” states their CEO on their website, “Aaron’s customers can be assured that we’re taking this allegation very seriously. We are conducting a thorough investigation and diligently reaching out to our customers to address any of their concerns.”

Despite the fact that this is an ongoing case in which anything can happen, however, things aren’t looking too good for Aaron’s; as the IBT article relates, “A law enforcement investigation confirmed the photo was taken by PC Rental Agent, and that software was on all Aaron’s computers.” Oops.

Nor are such alleged incidences few and far between: in another case involving Pennsylvania, Robbins Vs. Lower Merion School District, the school district settled out of court to the tune of $610,000 back in October rather than get creamed for illegally taking (as the district revealed afterwards) over 66,000 images through the undisclosed use of spyware hardware/software on school district loaner laptops. (!!)

What’s next? Cameras in the bathrooms? Based on a 15-minute perusal of legal cases on just that topic, it happens all the time. For instance, in Ohio last year, “Former Mayfield Heights Fire Captain Daniel Serge pleaded guilty…to hiding a camera in the bathroom of the YMCA…” (“Man pleads guilty in bathroom spying case,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dec. 22nd.)

Our privacies, quite clearly, are under attack; and not just from the government, but from private entities who ought to know better as well. It’s one thing to arm a computer system with tracking capabilities in the event of non-payment or theft; it’s another thing completely to use that ability to spy on people without their knowledge or consent – and any person or organization caught engaging in such activities deserve the full punishments capable of being imposed by the justice system as a result.

As technology continues to proliferate and micro-miniaturize, however, the ease with which such surveillance capabilities are employed can only be expected to increase over time. Your privacy is being eroded whether you like it or not – and, these days, unless you’re out in a wheat field or a hermit in some cave somewhere (an idea that has crossed my mind more than once), it’s only reasonable to assume that you are being watched and/or recorded nearly everywhere you go.

So, you might want to act accordingly. And don’t forget to smile for that birdie baby!


Bradley Harrington is a former U.S. Marine and a writer who lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming; he can be reached at

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A "local" piece, published in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle on May 7th, 2011.

This is of more than just local interest.

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Not so science fiction anymore:

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