Avoid Computer Rental Spyware

With the tough economy, I’m hearing that more people are choosing to rent their computers. And why not? For casual computer users this means never ending up with an outdated computer. At least, this is the idea behind renting that almost makes sense to me. Clearly a moot point for the power users who simply migrate their computers to new tasks after purchasing an upgrade. For the casual user, I believe firmly that not ending up with an old machine is a motivation for renting… along with spreading out the cost.

As Chris outlines, Aarons Rentals was alleged to have been spying on their customers when using laptops rented from Aarons. A frightening prospect. Worse, because the TOS likely indicate that the laptop OS is to be left alone, you’re not exactly in a position to simply format and reinstall. How do you protect yourself when renting a computer, if you can’t simply overwrite any potential hazards?

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by diaper

Introducing PCRental Agent

Like any software, PCRental Agent is benign until misused as a tool to spy on customers. The software known as PCRental Agent has the ability to shutdown, lock down, track, and even provide surveillance on unsuspecting laptop users. How do you know if your rented system came with it? Do a search for akerneldrv64.sys, which is a system file associated with PCRental Agent. It seems that you’re able to remove the problem easily enough by zeroing out the disk and installing Windows or Linux over things, should you wish to get past this. My own advice is not to trust any rented computer for home use – ever.

Now the really bad part

The latest updated scripts have allegedly started blocking the installation of many antivirus programs, likely because the software already in use is a rootkit and a threat to anyone putting up with it. So the options here seem fairly obvious. You either avoid rented computers like no tomorrow or expect that as soon as you get that home, you violate the rental agreement and zero out that hard drive like it’s going out of style. Speaking for myself, this is why I don’t use proprietary operating systems. Too much trust with too few people. I like checks and balances, guess I’m old fashioned that way. This would never be an issue on a Linux box. Why? Because I can have the code audited at anytime. However, if you’re in the market for renting a computer, “use Linux” probably isn’t the solution you were looking for, so it may make more sense to shop around and ask what the rental store policies are, vote with your wallet, and avoid companies who want to violate your privacy.