Do you feel like everybody's spying on you? Don't worry, you're not paranoid, you're right. Everybody is spying on you -- the government, retailers and those elusive Internet sleuths who track your every move, among others.
Even our very own beloved local cops are spying on us, using fender-mounted cameras to go clickety-click each time another license plate goes by. Most police cars also have forward-pointing cameras to record what goes on when they pull you over.
Well, guess what, it's about time we returned the favor and started spying on everybody else. One way to do that is to take a page from the cops and mount a dashboard camera in your car -- something that will just sit there quietly recording your every move behind the wheel and, of course, the actions of every car, bike, pedestrian, traffic light and stray deer you run across, or into.
Get the right camera and you'll have a built-in defense against traffic tickets, assuming of course that you really didn't do whatever it is you're accused of. Many cameras come with time and GPS stamps and many also record your speed. Not only can you prove you didn't run that red light at Spruce and Main, you can also prove that you were on the Jersey Turnpike at the very moment someone ransacked your ex-spouse's home in Massachusetts.
Also, in the event of an accident, a good dashboard camera will show exactly what happened -- whether that speeding Porsche ran the light as you say it did or whether that delivery truck really backed into you in the parking lot (the truck driver, of course, says you slammed into him).
Most cameras will even protect your car while it's parked. The good ones automatically come to life at any sign of an impact. So that dodo who backs into your cream-colored Lexus and speeds off won't get away with it.
Oh, and let's not forget others who drive your car -- your spouse and children, perhaps. These cameras quickly fade into the woodwork so your family members' true driving habits will soon be visible. It's a dead-certain way to make sure your 17-year-old isn't doing anything he or she shouldn't (not that he or she would, of course. Just saying ...).
I had been afraid the dashboard cameras would quickly become a magnet for crooks. But after trying out a few, I now see a different concern -- once installed with the two-sided tape that accompanies most models, they are nearly impossible to remove. So make sure it's where you want it before you do the deed.
You may want to get a professional installer to hard-wire the device into your car's electrical circuits. Plugging it into the cigarette lighter is really ugly and makes it too easy for your 17-year-old to disable it.
Also, these things get hot. Even when my cars were parked in a dark garage, the cameras were warm to the touch after they had been sitting overnight. Not sure what would happen if the car was parked on Camelback Avenue in Phoenix.
Black box questions
One final thing: there has been some controversy about the "black box" that resides silently in many newer cars. Sometimes prosecutors and personal injury lawyers subpoena the devices to build a case against you. While that could happen with a dashboard camera, it at least is under your control. If you want to rip it out and back over it before the cops get there, go ahead. But don't say we told you to do it.
The folks at SpyTec were nice enough to loan me several cameras for this article. I wasn't able to test all of them extensively but I put two through their paces and found them both more than up to the task.
The DR-32 is a mid-range model, listed at $134.95 on the SpyTec site. Instalation was a snap, as was set-up. Actualy, there really is no set-up, other than finding the best location for the camera, taping it to the windshield and plugging it into what we still quaintly call the cigarette lighter. The camera uses a Micro SD card, which is not included, so be sure to order one before trying to use the camera.
The camera works well enough but I found the video choppy, the audio inconsistent and the general video quality not on a par with the other models I tested. Also, when I played the video back on my laptop, it displayed date and time but not speed and other essential information.
In this brief demo, the camera is mounted on the right side of the mirror in a Volkswagen Tiguan as my wife drives it sedately on a Sunday-morning errand.
The Lukas Cuty
This is one mean-looking camera. It looks like it belongs in a Porsche or a Ferrari. I couldn't scare up a Ferrari but I mounted it in my 1999 Porsche 911. It worked great but the windshield in the Porsche is raked at a pretty sharp angle and I realized after pasting the thing to the glass that the wide-angle lens was picking up the corner of the rear-view mirror.
Other than that, the Cuty was cute as could be. It fired right up and starting shooting crisp video and recording every exhaust burble. The Cuty uses a standard-size SD card, which is a point in its favor in my opinion. Unless you are a brain surgeon, the tiny Micro SD card that many cameras use is just too hard to handle.
Perhaps more important, the Cuty includes the time/date stamp, speed and other information on the video read-out. It also displays your speed while you're driving and starts beeping at you if if detects excessive foot-heaviness.
For $199, this one gets a Best Value award in my book.
Here's a brief spin in the Porsche:
AT $299, this is the most expensive of the cameras I examined and may be the best for car enthusiasts who want the very highest performance and, perhaps more significantly, drive cars with sharply-angled windshields, like my old Porsche. Its unique cylindrical shape lets you slide it in front of the rear-view mirror, slipping into spaces that are too tight for bigger cameras.
I found it a bit complex to set up and sort of ran out of time. If it interests you, here's a fairly comprehensive review and set-up guide from a British car enthusiasts' site.
I suspect these will soon be standard equipment on most cars, but if security is important to you -- or if you just like to watch videos of your trips to the liquor store -- these cameras offer a lot of technology for just a few bucks. Besides, when they become standard equipment, they'll probably include a chip that sends a record of your activities to the NSA or Google or somebody, so there's a real advantage to being an early adopter.
Full disclosure: SpyTec loaned me the cameras for this review and I returned them promptly after finishing this article. There was no other promotional or monetary consideration.