WASHINGTON — The Homeland Security Department abruptly reversed course Wednesday and dropped plans to ask a private company to give the government access to a nationwide database of license plate tracking information.
Secretary Jeh Johnson directed that a contract proposal issued last week be canceled.
The proposal said Immigration and Customs Enforcement was planning to use the license plate data in pursuit of criminal immigrants and others sought by authorities.
Gillian Christensen, an ICE spokeswoman, said the contract solicitation was posted "without the awareness of ICE leadership."
The department said Johnson has ordered a review of the proposal.
The contract notice came amid growing concerns about government surveillance of U.S. citizens but didn't address potential privacy consequences.
Before the notice was canceled, Christensen said the database "could only be accessed in conjunction with ongoing criminal investigations or to locate wanted individuals."
Law enforcement has been using license plate readers for several years, but privacy advocates have raised concerns that the unchecked collection of such information could allow for the tracking of an average citizen's every movement. Lawmakers across the country, meanwhile, have been wrestling with whether or how to control the collection and use of license plate data.
According to the contract proposal, the government wanted "a close-up of the plate and a zoomed out image of the vehicle."
The Homeland Security Department also wanted instant and around-the-clock access to the records. It is not clear from the contract notice how long individual records would be kept or what other government agencies may have access to the trove of records.