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ACLU says police use license plate scanners to spy on public

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- License plate scanners used by police are designed to help authorities catch criminals and rescue missing people. But the ACLU now alleges they're also storing information on millions of innocent people.

The technology uses cameras on patrol units to automatically scan license plates on passing drivers. The number is checked against the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

The ACLU says the scanners also track a vehicle's location, and there are no limits to how long that information is kept or who else can access it. The Oklahoma City Police Department has 17 patrol cars armed with plate scanners.

They say non-criminal plates are purged after 60 days, drivers are not identified, and all the information is kept private on their secure servers.

"It's important to note that it only keeps a record of the (plate) numbers," MSgt. Gary Knight said. "It does not check and see who the vehicle belongs to, where the people live or what address it goes to.  It simply records the number of the license plate."

Brady Henderson, Legal Director for ACLU Oklahoma, says unethical use of the technology has already been documented.

"There are issues that have happened in other states for instance where even private entities, such as those repossessing cars, said 'let's use this data for commercial benefit.  Let's try to find cars to repossess them more easily'," Henderson said. "We're talking about government trying to learn more and more about people's daily habits, people's beliefs, people's associations. Things that are very, very closely protected and things that we have a right, frankly, to keep from the government's knowledge."

Henderson would like to see state laws created to regulate the use of license plate scanners.