Why today's rent-to-own economy presents a host of privacy challenges

Innovation Hub
Rows of Apple laptop computers

Rows of Apple laptop computers are seen at the Apple Store in Palo Alto, California, November 13, 2015.

Stephen Lam/Reuters

Imagine this: You’re late. You’ve got to get to class, to your kid’s school, to work. But your car — which you’re leasing from a rent-to-own company, and which worked just minutes before — won’t start.

No, it’s not a mechanical problem. It’s your lender activating the “kill-switch,” or turning off your device if you fall behind on payments.

Rent-to-own property, like laptops and cars, are at the center of a new trend. Sarah Jeong, a contributing editor at Vice Motherboard and a Poynter Fellow in Journalism at Yale, thinks it’s time we start paying attention.

Lenders are notorious for what they’ll do to collect on their loans. They’ll hound you with mail, calls, and, until recently, get you thrown into jail. But what do you get when you cross lenders with the latest surveillance technology?

According to Jeong, bad things.

Software called PC Rental Agent has been installed on hundreds of thousands of computers worldwide, including some computers distributed to public schools in Pennsylvania. In addition to the kill switch option, the software also has a feature dubbed Detective Mode, whose creation Jeong calls a “moustache-twirling moment of villainy.”

Detective Mode works by secretly turning on the laptop’s webcam, taking pictures of the user, and sending those pictures to the lender.

That means pictures of unsuspecting people in their houses, in their bedrooms, of their children — and remember those public school computers? Well, those blew up in a big way.

A Pennsylvania public school suspended a student for doing drugs. When he asked how the school knew, they showed him pictures they had taken of him in his bedroom.

Until that moment, neither he nor any of the other students at the school knew they were being watched.

“You have to wonder who thought this was a good idea,” Jeong says. “Most of the time people exercise common sense and don’t take pictures of children in their bedrooms.” Plus, “technically, this is illegal.”

But when discovered, the creators of Detective Mode got off with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. (The school wasn’t so lucky.)

Jeong thinks that the void in federal regulation is a sign the government hasn’t yet figured out how to deal with growing surveillance technology. Which could mean problems for millions. Household debt is more than three times our annual income, and it’s increasing.

“We’re going to be living in a society where, for most of us, we have less and less property,” she says.

As we own less, we’ll have more debt. And, as kill-switches and Detective Mode have shown, “wherever debtors are, we’ll have more and more surveillance.”

You can read Jeong’s article, How Technology Helps Creditors Control Debtors, in The Atlantic.

This story was first published by PRI's Innovation Hub.

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