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Are New London's secret spy cameras a creep toward authoritarianism?

There were so many distressing aspects to the New London City Council's approval this week, without discussion, of a no-bid contract to buy cameras for blanket video surveillance of much of the city with secretly located cameras, that it is hard to know where to begin to express my alarm.

I guess I might start with the actual vote, which, incredibly, occurred without a single public comment from a single city councilor. The public was certainly never invited to come and comment before the shocking proposal was sealed with a vote.

This is the new look of single-party rule in New London, where all decision-making occurs behind closed doors and the public gets to see only the recording of the final outcome.

The previous most recent example of this most undemocratic process was the last one-party-ruled council granting exclusive development rights to the city waterfront, after a closed-door session, without competitive bidding or any notice at all that the rights were even up for grabs.

Even uglier, the exclusive waterfront rights were granted to someone without relevant experience who had been referred to Mayor Michael Passero by a city developer facing myriad corruption charges, including bribery.

Besides the lack of discussion, the most disturbing part of the new surveillance plan is that it allows for dozens of cameras all over the city, with all kinds of modern tilt and zoom and taping capability, to watch and record comings and goings from almost any residence or business that police choose to secretly spy on.

It's an easy shortcut around the protection of civil liberties.

Why go for a wiretapping warrant on a suspected drug dealer when you can just secretly record video of all the comings and goings into that person's home or business, even zoom in to see what the visitors are wearing and carrying.

The American Civil Liberties Union warns of new camera technology that would allow police to look under clothes, into packages and follow in the dark.

Why stop with criminal investigations?

Some out-of-wedlock assignations of one city official are known in some quarters of the city. What if police decided to record them, creating an embarrassing close-up video record of the comings and goings?

If you are a prominent person and you take your mistress to a Bank Street bar, police may be able to produce a recording of it.

Is New London going to become the fictional, camera-filled Oceania of George Orwell's "1984," a prophetic book that warned against an inevitable creep, with new technology, toward authoritarianism.

Surely becoming the city of surveillance is not going to help New London attract people to come and work and invest, or even stop for dinner, if they know they are being secretly watched and recorded.

The deal the City Council approved proposed 34 cameras in possible locations spelled out in the contract. Many of them are in residential neighborhoods, like the corner of Ann and Shaw streets, and the vast majority in places where low-income city residents live.

But police Chief Brian Wright, in a memo shared with city councilors before the vote, said he believes the final location of the cameras should remain secret, for security purposes.

Not only is that almost certainly illegal, in violation of public disclosure laws, but it is ethically shameful.

The mayor, when I asked him, signed off on the idea of secret camera locations, what I would call a horrible affront to freedom and civil liberty.

"I would defer to the police professionals and subject matter experts for the technology on a decision like that, as long as the cameras are only covering public spaces," the mayor wrote back.

Wow. The city has a mayor who wants to defer to police and technocrats on an issue of civil rights.

Count me in as the first person who will file a complaint with the state Freedom of Information Commission about keeping the location of government cameras spying on the public secret.

I hope lawmakers are paying attention, too, to this egregious affront to transparency.

One of the few other Connecticut cities that has embraced the new technology of camera surveillance is New Haven. But officials there did it on a much smaller scale, by divided vote, and after a wide-ranging public discussion.

Opponents there made the important point in the debate that there is absolutely no evidence that camera surveillance reduces crime.

And I don't believe any public officials in New Haven made the audacious suggestion that the spying be done secretly.

This week's vote in New London, without public comment or even discussion by decision-makers, to secretly watch and record residents, businesspeople and visitors, will go down as a low point in the city's history.

I suspect it will have a chilling effect on the city's future prospects, as people decide to stay out of camera range and live, work and invest elsewhere.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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