WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security is seeking bids from companies able to provide law enforcement officials with access to a national license-plate tracking system – a year after canceling a similar solicitation over privacy issues.

The reversal comes after officials said they had determined they could address concerns raised by civil liberties advocates and lawmakers about the prospect of the department gaining widespread access, without warrants, to a system that holds billions of records that reveal drivers’ whereabouts.

In a privacy impact assessment issued Thursday, DHS clarifies it is not seeking to build a national database or contribute data to an existing system.

Instead, it is seeking bids from companies that already gather the data to say how much they would charge to grant access to law enforcement officers at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). Officials said they also want to impose limits on ICE personnel’s access and use of the data.

“These restrictions will provide essential privacy and civil liberty protections, while enhancing our agents’ and officers’ ability to locate and apprehend suspects who could pose a threat to national security and public safety,” DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron said in a statement. Privacy advocates who reviewed a copy of the privacy assessment said it fell short.

“If this goes forward, DHS will have warrantless access to location information going back at least five years about virtually every adult driver in the U.S., and sometimes, to their image as well,” said Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology.

Commercial license-plate tracking systems are already used by the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as some local and state law enforcement agencies. News of the DHS solicitation triggered a public firestorm last year, leading Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to cancel it and order a review of privacy concerns.


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