Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tech Spies Are All around Us

By Ana Veciana-Suarez

RISMEDIA, May 24, 2011— (MCT)—I have an intimate relationship with my computer, and for good reason. I spend more time with it than I do with any other thing. Or person. I know the contours of the keyboard, the adorable way it blinks awake first thing in the morning, how it hiccups during a power surge.

In turn, my computer has seen me in situations few others have. Before jumping in the shower. In a comfy pajamas. Sometimes, too, all dolled up before a night out on the town. We’re tight, my computer and I.

But now a lawsuit filed by a Wyoming couple has made me suspicious about what secrets my beloved gadget might one day lord over me. The suit is especially relevant at a time when federal lawmakers are considering new online privacy rules.

Last year Bryan Byrd and his wife, Crystal, rented a computer from Aaron’s with the intent to buy. When the store manager tried to repossess the computer because he mistakenly thought the couple hadn’t paid up, the manager showed Byrd a picture of himself using the computer. It was taken by the computer’s webcam, with the help of spying software—equipment the couple didn’t know about, the suit alleges.

The Byrds are seeking unspecified damages from the Atlanta-based rental chain and want the court to declare their case a class-action suit. Their attorney claims Aaron’s officials told police the company installs spyware on all its rental computers, the Associated Press reports. But Aaron’s denies that any of its 1,140 corporate stores use this device or even do business with the software company that makes it.

“I feel violated,” Crystal Byrd said. “It’s scary that people can come into your home and you not know that they’re watching you.”

Her husband said he felt “invaded” and worried that the secret webcam may have filmed his 5-year-old son running around after getting out of the bath.

“What if they took a picture of that?” he told the AP. “I wouldn’t want that kind of garbage floating around out there.”

Nobody would. Reality is, however, that a whole lot of garbage about us and our habits bobs out there in the cyber sea simply because we love-love-love our gadgets. We love them so much we’re willing to be tracked, watched, spotted and analyzed. Privacy is as passé as paper address books.

Millions of PlayStation gamers had their identities hacked last month. And those besotted iPhone owners? They recently learned their handsets may be collecting their whereabouts through Wi-Fi hot spots and wireless towers.

But cyber spying is even more pervasive than those high-profile cases would lead us to believe. Last year, privacy experts testified before Congress that Facebook and other social networks manipulate privacy policies to extract personal information from users and transfer the data to application developers and websites. Another tech behemoth, Google, settled with the Federal Trade Commission for exposing Gmail users’ contacts as part of its Buzz social network launch in February.

Big Brother, meet Peeping Tom. It gives me the creeps. Lesson here? Watch where you leave your virtual footsteps. And remember that convenience comes at a price—one you may come to regret paying.

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