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'Spyware' installed on rental laptops

The spyware is being installed on rental laptops worldwide.

The spyware is being installed on rental laptops worldwide. Photo: AFP

An Australian business that rents out computers is installing software that a United States authority has labelled “spyware”.

The software, PC Rental Agent, has been used in the US by computer rental companies to capture webcam images of people having sex and to collect private information including bank details and passwords.

But Geelong business Rentasaur says it will continue to install the software on its users' computers, despite a crackdown in the US on companies that use it.

Spyware is being installed on Australian rental laptops.

Spyware is being installed on Australian rental laptops. Photo: Virginia Star

Know Australian rental companies installing spyware? Email us

Rentasaur's procurement and acquisition manager, Vikram Kanyalkarm, said it had been installing the software without consent on its rental laptops for the past two-and-a-half years, but that it was used for security purposes, and its spy functions were not activated.

Mr Kanyalkarm said Rentasaur used the software to lock clients' computers if they didn't pay their bill and to protect a computer's data if it is stolen.

One such renter, understood to be a customer of Rentasaur, complained via a friend on the broadband forum Whirlpool earlier this year as their laptop locked up when they didn't pay their bill.

"We have had customers that have taken our equipment and done a runner," Mr Kanyalkarm said.

He said users were not alerted to the software's installation on their computers. “We don't specifically give them any documentation to say it's been put on there.

“But we don't use it to track any information on a customer's computer."

The Geelong rental business is one of the 1617 rental stores in the United States, Canada and Australia that have licensed PC Rental Agent from US software firm DesignerWare.

Seven US companies and the software designer DesignerWare last week agreed to a settlement of charges with the US Federal Trade Commission that they spied on consumers using computers with the PC Rental Agent software on them that were rented from rental shops.

As of August 2011, the software had been installed on about 420,000 computers worldwide, according the the US Federal Trade Commission.

The computers in question captured screenshots of personal information, logging customers' computer keystrokes, and in some cases took webcam pictures — all without consent.

Data gathered by PC Rental Agent with "Detective Mode" turned on and stored by DesignerWare, and provided to rental stores using it, revealed private and confidential details about users, such as user names and passwords for email accounts, social media websites, and financial institutions; US Social Security numbers; medical records; private emails to doctors; bank and credit card statements; and webcam pictures of children, partially undressed individuals, and intimate activities at home, the FTC said.

But Rentasuraus' Kanyalkarm said his company's computers didn't have any of the intrusive features turned on. "There are other features on it," Mr Kanyalkarm said, but he said they had to be activated and weren't on by default.

"The customer becomes aware if you activate those features," he said. "You [the rental company] can turn them on after installing the software but as far as I know the person on the other end needs to give some sort of permission."

But Mr Rental, another Australian laptop and desktop computer rental business, said it did not endorse the use of the PC Rental Agent “monitoring” software on any of its devices.

Managing director James Nixon-Smith said his company was aware of the “potential privacy risks involved in the use of systems available to the industry”, such as PC Rental Agent, but did not use the software and would not advocate its use. “Mr Rental is a client-centric organisation, so we therefore do not advocate, and have never promoted or recommended the use of spyware on any company computers," Mr Nixon-Smith said.

Rental Plus, another Australian rental business, said it would never use the software.

“If we do that we'd lose business,” said Rental Plus owner Nidal Saeed.

It's unclear how much of an effect the Federal Trade Commission's win over US companies will have on Australian companies using PC Rental Agent.

Jon Lawrence, executive officer at online users' lobby Electronic Frontiers Australia, said the software installed by Rentasaur seemed like the type of technology a corporate IT department would install on its laptops legitimately. But for a rental company to install it without consent seemed wrong, he said.

"Whether they use the [spyware] functionality or not, it doesn't matter

... The fact that it's there means it is a security and privacy risk."

The office of the Victorian Privacy Commissioner said that it was good business practice to tell customers how and why their personal information is being collected, and how that personal information may be used.

"This transparency fosters a good relationship between the parties and is a basic tenet of privacy law," it said.

"Transparency is particularly important when the collection and use of personal information is being facilitated electronically and is therefore not visible to people."

Comment is being sought from the federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner.

Correction: This article originally stated that the Geelong company's name was "Rentasaurus". Its name is Rentasaur and the article has been amended to reflect this.

The Age has launched a series on privacy and wants to hear from you.

 Email privacy@theage.com.au, visit us on Facebook at facebook.com.au/theprivacyquestion or use the Twitter hashtag #ageprivacy.

twitter This reporter is on Facebook: /bengrubb

 

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