The General Assembly today ratified a bill that would regulate law enforcement’s use of inconspicuous cameras that, unbeknownst to you, are taking pictures of your license plate on the roadways.

Up to now, these “automatic license plate reader systems” have not been part of mainstream conversation; they’re a distinct entity from the cameras used on toll roads. But the Raleigh Police Department has been using the readers since 2010. Some are discretely affixed to street poles, while others are “mobile”—mounted to police cruisers.

The authors of S.B. 182 were concerned that unmonitored use of the cameras invaded motorists’ privacy.

“They can literally be used to track everywhere you go,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., D–Durham, one of the bill’s lead sponsors. “We need to have standards to protect the public.”

The bill describes plate readers as “automated high-speed cameras used in combination with computer algorithms to convert images of license plates into computer-readable data.”

“Sometimes you might look up, and it looks like a power line at the pole at the intersection, and there’s a reader there,” said McKissick. “They’re basically capturing your number and running it through a database. Big Brother is there, my friend, but they don’t tell you.”

If Gov. Pat McCrory signs the bill into law, police departments would need to create policies addressing data collection, retention, protection and distribution to other law enforcement agencies.

Plate data would be confidential and protected from public record requests. Data could only be preserved for 90 days, unless a law enforcement agency obtains a search warrant to extend the preservation period.

Jim Sughrue, an RPD spokesman, says the department uses six car-mounted cameras—one for each district—in addition to one mobile-mounted unit and at least six-pole mounted cameras.

RPD’s car readers were purchased from PIPS Technology for $18,700 each; the funds were partially secured from the N.C. Governor’s Crime Commission and the Governor’s Highway Safety Program. The pole cameras are mounted by RPD personnel; some are affixed permanently, while others rotate locations.

Sughrue says the cameras can help prevent crime. Rebutting privacy critics, he said, “Frankly, I think the public would be more concerned if this technology was available and the department decided to not use it.”

The Durham Police Department currently uses one mobile camera, which it purchased from ELSAG for $18,000. It’s been used since 2012. Kammie Michael, a DPD spokesperson, said the department has used the camera in response to missing-person alerts, wanted-person alerts and stolen-vehicle reports.

RPD and DPD both maintain plate data for a maximum of six months. (In the case of RPD, that preservation period may be extended if the data is part of an active case.) RPD has a written camera policy; DPD does not.

The Senate unanimously passed the bill yesterday, after the House passed it last week with just two dissents.

McKissick says the bill will ensure the license-plate readers are used only for legitimate law-enforcement purposes. “People should not have to feel their whereabouts can be captured and tracked,” he said.

An example of an abuse, he said, would be using plate data to track a person cheating on their spouse. “We don’t need all that,” said the senator.