By Michael Watts MRCVS
They called it The Private Shop and, with its windows covered from floor to ceiling with brown paper worthy of any wartime blackout, it is hard to imagine a more private place. It stood just up the street from my bedsit back in those early days when, fresh off the plane from Dublin and making my first tentative steps in the veterinary game, I was living in the high rent district for want of better.
It was by repute a business patronised by those seeking to enhance your love live or perhaps substitute for their lack of same but however much idle curiosity I might have had about what went on in the gloom within, I most certainly was much too naïve and wet behind the ears to summon up the courage to cross the threshold. To this day I have never cultivated much of a interest in the adult or the erotic. As my life rushes headlong towards one of those big birthdays, I am happy to settle for a half decent pint, and the peace and quiet to enjoy it. A wee bit of privacy is hard to beat.
Given that this column is being written in the dying days of May 2018. the quick witted among you, whose doormats are piled high and e-mail inboxes choked with requests from government bodies and private companies seeking permission to store and use their personal data, will see where this discussion is going.
We are talking about the GDPR, not a satellite system that can track our every move nor yet a failed communist state in eastern Germany but the General Data Protection Regulations. Big Brother, in this case the Brussels version of same, wants to watch us a bit more closely. Now generally that would be as a red rag to a bull to your average hard-wired anarchist types like me but when you look at it a bit closer it ain’t all bad.
For a start off in the tsunami of e-mails that I received in the last few weeks asking me to confirm my personal details or renew my registration or whatever were a goodly number from companies and government bodies with which I have no recollection of ever having done business and others with which I certainly have not done very much business any way recently. The opportunity to streamline and simplify my life was too good to miss and pretty soon the delete button on my trusty PC was overheating from constant use while the recycle bin in the yard filled rapidly.
On the other hand the good ladies in my office have found themselves saddled with yet another task, that of getting each and every client to complete and sign a form outlining what of their data they are happy for me to keep on file. This is just what any business needs, another layer of administration, another chore to be carried out at the owner’s expense which will bring in not one brass farthing in profit.
While they are busily employed pushing paper, I am scouring the premises for the key to the filing cabinet, as the completed forms have to be kept securely stashed away for possible future reference and the nobody can recall when that last saw the key in question. Now I do not bombard my punters with marketing material. I never have and never will. Those farm clients who pay on any kind of semi-regular basis get a newsletter every month with their bill and the horse and pet owners get a postcard to remind them when their pride and joy is due another vaccination. Apart from that all I need is an address to which I can post a bill to those who did not ante up on the day and a telephone number, landline or mobile, in case I need to contact them in short order. I would never flog my clients’ personal details to a drug company or pet insurance company or whatever.
It angers me when I find my details being touted around cyberspace and I would not inflict that on anyone. Either I am missing something or this GDPR business is carried out on a less than level playing field. While the angels I employ are asking my clients their date of birth, their mother’s maiden name and their shoe size, some of the e-mails I get sent ask me for my name rank and serial number, while others invite me to express my acquiescence by double-left-clicking on the appropriate coloured square..
My bank sent me a small glossy leaflet on their approach to storing my data which I was invited to read and to contact them if anything required clarification. No signature appears necessary, my consent apparently being assumed if I fail to respond to the contrary. The bank is a strong firm, and the smart money would suggest they are probably more likely to have got it about right than a penny ante operation like mine. .
The powers that be achieve compliance by threatening extortionate fines for those who do not het with the programme while ambulance chasing lawyers on internet webinars advise that being seen to be trying ones damnedest is all that the situation requires.
Where does all this leave me, as I stand with my two arms the one length in the vet’s room at the track of a Saturday night? I was brought up old school, taught that every word that passes between a veterinary surgeon and his client is privileged. Like a priest in the confessional, whatever is said to me by my client goes no further on pain of imprisonment or total bodily dismemberment or worse. That looks good on paper, but who exactly is my client in this situation?
My wages are paid by the promoter who runs the track, at least they are whenever I can coax a cheque out of She Who Must Be Obeyed in the front office. The connections of the injured greyhounds who cross the threshold of the vets’ room having had bad luck in running pay nothing, the tab being picked up by the promoter, bless him.
Then there is the regulator, who lays down the rules whereby our sport is governed. at times I have to try to enforce the rules on their behalf they to do not contribute towards my mortgage repayments. Truth to tell I very seldom hear from them either good news or bad, an arrangement which suits me the very best. Once a year they are kind enough to invite me and ‘Er Indoors to don our best bibs and tuckers and join them at a junket on Oaks final night so I get to play at being one of the Beautiful People just for an hour or two.
In different ways at different times all three, the owner, the promoter and the regulator, are my client. No man can be servant to three masters, at least not for very long, and inevitably conflicts of interest crop up from time to time. While discussions between the track vet and an owner of trainer are for the most part confidential this privacy does have its limits. If for example the actions of the connections of a greyhound are such as to give rise to a reasonable suspicion that they may be contemplating something which is illegal, then the duty of the track vet may be to contact the proper authorities rather than to keep schtum. Thankfully I have managed to avoid getting caught in that particular crossfire so far.
However I recall one worthy whose bitch had been randomly selected for a routine drug test who kicked up quite a shindig before finally allowing me to collect the requisite urine sample. On the one hand the track vet has overall responsibility for all the dogs present at the track for a race meeting or trial session.
On another level he is not at liberty to exempt any individual from the need to present their dog for testing. Indeed, the track vet has a responsibility to the integrity of our sport to ensure that all hands do make an honest attempt to present their charges for testing when called upon to do so.
By the by, the bitch whose owner only allowed to be sampled with bad grace was a well-backed winning favourite on what was her debut race. If the lab turned up anything untoward in her urine I never heard. You might imagine that friction might arise between the track vet and the promoter if the vet on duty insisted on withdrawing too many dogs, thus spoiling one or more races as betting propositions. Perhaps I am lucky in that the trainers at our track are true sportsmen for the most part, and seldom present dogs for racing in no fit state to run.
On the few occasions that I have to pull a dog out it is usually at the request of its connections rather than against their will. Owners and trainers often imagine that the track vet has some say in the fitness of the track for racing, and that he or she can intervene if the track is frozen or waterlogged or otherwise unsuitable.
I have neither the training nor the experience to pass judgement on such matters and to be honest I have no great desire to do so.. They are a potential minefield and I am hang glad they are above my pay grade. Way back when I was young and foolish, when I was admitted to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, I took an oath to do my best for all the little furry animals in this world, or words to that effect.
Accordingly I would like to be able to say that in the final analysis my ultimate loyalty is to the welfare of the greyhounds that find themselves in my care. That alas is not entirely accurate. Once in a very blue moon, I am presented with a greyhound who has sustained an injury at the track which is not life-threatening but whose connections would like to have put down because it is too old, or too slow, or too unreliable to be worth persevering with.
Sometimes the reasons for sending a dog to its Eternal Reward have more to do with economics than just animal welfare. I wish it were not so, and cannot escape a feeling of having let some of my patients down when they needed me most.
Ultimately therefore in most situations my client has to be the owner of the greyhound I am treating. I have a professional obligation to record certain details of the dog and its owners.
And so presumably under the new GDPR I have to get informed consent to store the relevant data. This might be a lot easier said than done. For example the registered owner of the greyhound might not be present at the track when it sustains an injury.
You might think that I could just copy the owner’s details off the racecard or the dog’s identity card but apparently that is not kosher. Just because a person’s data is in the public domain does not mean I can copy it without their permission. .
Am I at liberty to get the dog’s trainer or his kennelhand to sign the relevant forms? I am no lawyer but you have to figure that that one doesn’t work either, as it doesn’t quite seem right for a third party to authorise you to collect the somebody’s personal data in their absence.
What if reference to my racecard suggests that the registered owner of an injured greyhound is a syndicate? .Flying under the radar as a member of The Usual Suspects Syndicate or The Rising Sons of Down Syndicate may have a certain appeal to an owner wishing to conceal his involvement in a dog but it does not make life easier for the collector of personal data. To identify each and every member of such a syndicate and get the permission of every one to hold their data could be worse than a day’s work.
Back in Colonel Goodlake’s day when each owner’s greyhounds were identified by collars in a designated colour nobody worried about whose data was held by whom as the toffs were probably the only ones who could read and write.
Progress, in the shape of computer databases and social media platforms has dumped this little lot in our laps. When push comes to shove though, it is a first world problem. While we grumble about the hardness of our lives there is a kid somewhere in Gaza or Yemen or Myanmar who isn’t on any database and who lacks the barest essentials for a happy healthy life.