ArriveCAN — A Mandatory App/Web Process We Should Say No To

Bianca Wylie
5 min readJul 2, 2022

No Social License for this Shift Made in Crisis

The ArriveCAN app/web process is something the government of Canada has likely wanted to implement since before the pandemic. So when the Minister of Public Safety of Canada, Marco Mendicino, says that it “might” become permanent as part of broader border modernization efforts, we should ask ourselves if that’s what we want. Not if we’re ok with it, but if it’s what we actively desire and want.

The ArriveCAN app/web process is not a good idea. It’s unnecessary. The information it collects from people could have been added as a few questions to the entry kiosks at our airports that are in use today. The most cogent part of the government argument that I have found for it, so far, is buried in an order of council from August 2021 where the government talks about the intent of having travellers complete a process *before* they get to the airport to save time.

I’m putting a pin in that argument, and will return to it in another post, because there are a lot of assumptions and trade-offs involved in that statement. I am early in background reading. I haven’t used the app. It’s best to get all these bits on the table about intent and history and operations to inform our conversations. But these matters are secondary to the democratic process and legitimacy issue we’ve got on our hands here.

With all things technology, I know there are many opinions on this app. But the overarching issue here starts with process. The government appears to be trying to get away with a bait-and-switch move. That’s not something to allow nor normalize. Ushering technology in during a public health crisis, and then adapting and evolving the rationale to make the tech seem reasonable and inevitable as part of other plans. Why didn’t the government try to launch this app before the pandemic? Is it because it was unsure about how the public would receive it? You cannot, as a legitimate government, say you’re taking a step like this for one reason (public heath crisis) then change your story midway (border modernization).

If the government wants us to use mandatory apps/web processes at the border in the future, they have to engage with us as a public on that proposition, separate from the pandemic. This has nothing to do with whether you think the app is good or bad, or your political opinions about borders and nation states. If you’d like to read an expansive set of ideas and histories related to borders and nation states, consider reading Border and Rule by Harsha Walia. I’ve just started it. I’ve also recently read The Force of Nonviolence by Judith Butler. It was hard to read (language/style) but it was helpful on this topic.

I would not be surprised if we have a public consultation about this kind of an app/web process and a majority wanted it. I’ve never been able to have a good handle on where people sit with tech such as this. A consultation would, unfortunately, be held in a frame that leverages convenience ideology. A consumeristic notion that often breaks our collective sense of self.

Canada Border Services Agency, the part of the government that worked on the development of this app, is all about “safer, faster, better”. That’s the frame that invites your experience to matter more than others. It’s also continuing the confusion that we see deeply in the pandemic — that we exist separately from each other, as individuals. This was never true. For more on this idea, and the violence of the error, Butler’s book is good.

With that preface, it’s still worth believing that the government shouldn’t be allowed to normalize this shift in their story without our active consent. Even here we may disagree. The limits and range of authorities — in terms of the administrative state —to apply tech to modernize our processes is something that is tripping us up in every realm of public service delivery. Modernization is sometimes used as a neutral veneer to entrench and accelerate existing power imbalances.

As those that pay attention to and work on surveillance and border tech know, and have long LONG been warning about, there is a flood of tech and money ($650 million over five years in Canada, with more in other specific programs) being invested in what is often called “border modernization”. To get a sense of the broader picture and implications, see this recent piece by Jamie Liew and Petra Molnar, h/t Paris Marx.

I’m new to paying attention to the ArriveCAN app. It was launched in November 2020. It is a mandatory app/web site process required for Canadian travel. I didn’t come across it in my personal life because I haven’t travelled outside Canada during the pandemic. Then, recently, a family member told me about it (they were scared their phone wouldn’t support it), then a friend (they did not feel they had made an informed decision about it), and most recently, people that work in public tech.

I’m still early in uncovering background to share on this app, its history, its current status (I have downloaded it, but not used it). I’ll share more as I go. Next post we’ll talk about why the mandatory element of this app/process is problematic and bad precedent.

We are lucky to have an open access journal called Surveillance and Society, which I learned about from David Murakami Wood. The journal just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Some of the topics related to this ArriveCAN app have been studied and discussed for a long time. It’s an example of the disconnect between some of what we know is happening and some of our potential sense of inevitability about it.

This app is one tiny piece of a much larger puzzle and problem. But anytime we see a weakness in argument or an offering to resist — particularly in terms of the kind of society we foreclose when we comply — we should kick at it. The opportunity we always have in our days is to try to create more conditions of refuge and sanctuary for the waves of trouble that are washing over us. Hardening our current world with tech is generally not helpful to those efforts.

Press Release, Public Health Agency of Canada, November 2020