How One Colorado Couple Became Embroiled in a Legal Battle Over Computer Security

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The Internet is a virtually infinite forest of clients, servers, information and data that anyone can access.

But it’s also full of dangers, as one Colorado couple has learned.

Crystal and Brian Byrd purchased a computer from Aaron’s, Inc. rent-to-own franchise in Aspen Way in 2010, and soon found out that they were being watched with the help of a type of software called a Remote Access Tool (RAT).

According to The Atlantic, the store had installed a RAT on the couple’s computer without informing them. Store employees subsequently collected message logs, screenshots and webcam photographs from their computer, as the store had wrongly believed the couple was behind on their payments, all without the couple ever knowing.

“[It felt] like being invaded, like somebody else was in our house,” Brian told the Associated Press in 2011.

The Byrds are currently embroiled in still-pending federal litigation over whether or not Aaron’s, Inc. or its employees had the right to install a RAT on the couple’s computer without telling them.

It’s a question that’s tough to answer. U.S. laws regarding RATs are vague and often lacking. The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which forbids interception of electronic communications without first receiving consent, is the closest thing that comes to making RATs illegal. However, that law is nearly 29 years old, and far from being suited to cover contemporary cyber threats.

It’s also impossible to know exactly how many RATs there are, or how many people have fallen victim to this technology. According to The Atlantic, there have been hundreds of thousands of victims of just one type of RAT, and in 2014 alone. The actual number of infections across the years and across the various RAT technologies is impossible to estimate.

For the sake of the Byrds’ ongoing legal battles and for the countless Americans who are currently being watched through their computers by someone else with the help of RATs, it’s time for legislation to be passed that protects individuals against these types of non-consensual surveillance technologies.

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