The DHS agency was seeking a company to build a smart phone-accessible database of license plate information that agents could use in the field.
In the face of mounting privacy concerns, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson directed Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to cancel a solicitation seeking a private vendor to build a national license plate recognition system.
In a prepared statement, the agency claimed its senior officials were unaware of the solicitation.
The cancellation comes as ICE's acting director is about to step down from his position. John Sandweg, according to ICE, will leave the department Feb. 21. A replacement has not been named.
Sandweg's appointment last August raised the ire of some conservatives, who called the appointment political payback to a man who was a fundraiser for former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano when she was governor of Arizona.
In a statement in the wake the cancellation of the license plate solicitation, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the lack of a permanent director was complicating decision-making at ICE.
The DHS component issued the solicitation the week of Feb. 10, seeking a company to build a smart phone-accessible database of license plate information that its agents could use in the field to identify vehicles and their owners.
In the solicitation, ICE officials specified that the service would have tracked vehicle license plate numbers captured by cameras or voluntarily entered through sources such as access control systems, asset recovery specialists and law enforcement agencies.
"The solicitation, which was posted without the awareness of ICE leadership, has been cancelled," said an ICE email statement to FCW on Feb. 20. "While we continue to support a range of technologies to help meet our law enforcement mission, this solicitation will be reviewed to ensure the path forward appropriately meets our operational needs."
Jeramie Scott, national security counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told FCW when the proposal came to light that such a system’s wide-reaching, indiscriminate gathering of license plate images and associated information would pose serious privacy concerns.
In a Feb. 19 statement on the cancellation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation said that despite the cancellation, DHS could still be accessing national license plate data through a private company called Vigilant Solutions on an "ad hoc basis." EFF cited documents it obtained from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusettswhich it said showed ICE agents and other DHS components have been tapping into Vigilant’s data sets for years. It said it would continue to "push back on any future attempts to create a federally accessible national license plate database."