The Canada Border Services Agency ArriveCAN App Should Go Away

Bianca Wylie
8 min readJul 4, 2022

If It Stays, It Must Be Voluntary. Not Mandatory.

As Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said on June 28, 2022, the mandatory ArriveCAN app, launched because of, and during, the pandemic, might become a permanent part of how canadian borders are managed. And in this case, a mandatory one. Forcing all of us, including members of sovereign nations on this land, and visitors, to use it too.

There is a strong case to be made that this app should be shut down, full stop. In the next post I’ll organize and break down some of the narrower pieces of that argument related to utility, data governance, value, future use, etc. I have received some great help online from others in understanding these issues, which I’ll share too. Please keep it coming with sharing whatever you know about this app, including your experience :) But before digging into that, it’s important to pause to consider what public interest advocacy approach and argumentation we could use in this case, and why.

The primary problem to focus on with the ArriveCAN app is its mandatory status. Mandatory apps are never something we want to see at any level of government in canada, regardless of their intended purpose or function. And while there are several related operational and data-related issues to explore, and for each of us to have our own opinions about, the public interest advocacy requirement here is to focus on both democratic process and consent, as touched on in the first post, and how issues with this app relate to administrative burden, access, and equity, the focus of this one.

Modernization As Both Broad and Narrow Experimentation

We live in a dominant culture that is insistent on both forgetting history and valorizing novelty. So first off, remember that the public service processes that we’ve been modernizing over the last forty years are still generally quite experimental, in terms of what they’re doing to administrative functions, equitable access to services, redress, and more. We have to understand, without nostalgia, that government has a responsibility to provide equitable public services. When we modernize public services without a full accounting for equity impacts, and democratic accountability, we lose.

Staring down the stated date of September 30th as the next time border policies for the pandemic might change, we can consider at least three key potential outcomes for ArriveCAN before or at that date, and then orient our political position and engagement accordingly:

  1. On or before September 30th, 2022, ArriveCAN could be decommissioned.
  2. On or before September 30th, 2022, ArriveCAN could be made voluntary
  3. On September 30th, 2022, ArriveCAN retains mandatory use status

Personally, I would like to see ArriveCAN decommissioned. That’s born of a range of political beliefs and experiences. But from a public interest advocacy position, shifting ArriveCAN from a mandatory to a voluntary app is a defensible outcome to strive for as well. Minister Mendicino did not make mention of this shift from mandatory to voluntary in his public remarks.

Why is that outcome — from mandatory to voluntary use— contextually appropriate to seek? Let’s consider that question by doing a quick comparison between the ArriveCAN app and the COVID Alert app.

ArriveCAN vs. COVID Alert— Different Apps, Different Advocacy Approach

I’m still doing background work to understand what did happen and is happening on the government side with ArriveCAN. Because it’s a recent experience for some of us, it may be helpful to compare and contrast the approach we take to engaging on the ArriveCAN app with the approach we took on the COVID Alert app. They are very different cases and uses of public technology. Those differences are helpful in understanding why seeking a shift to voluntary use matters.

ArriveCAN is fundamentally administrative in nature (for now)

The background on the ArriveCAN app, as far as I understand it so far, is that the federal government wanted to collect mandatory health information from travellers upon entering Canada for pandemic purposes. I’m not sure how it was doing that before the launch of the app, but my understanding is that the app was created as a way to make that information collection more efficient. It did not change it. The Public Health Agency of Canada was engaged on the data collection involved, and the Canada Border Services Agency was in charge of creating the app. This is what I understand so far and am always seeking more information and additions/corrections.

What is vital to understand about this app is that the rationale used for its existence is highly administrative in nature. What that means is that the data collected through the app could be collected in other ways. The core rationale for the app was administrative efficiency. That it would save time, both on the traveller side and the government side, to collect this information via an app or mandatory web form.

This does not, however, generally map to the vague political rhetoric that is being used about keeping each other safe with this app. Any state argument about safety being created at the borders mostly* relates to the collection and use of public health information. Not the app. (*there may have also been an intent to try to minimize the time we were standing around together in airports, thus reducing exposure to each other because we used the app before getting to the airport, but I’m still wading through it - unclear.)

What the government actually does with the information collected to inform our public health response is not necessarily impacted by how it is collected. Put another way: if the government is claiming safety by checking people’s vaccination status, it’s the requirement to be vaccinated that is having an impact, not how the government knows about vaccination status. Side note: there is a question to return to here about what technology the government is using on the other side of the data collection that we can’t see, but again, let’s focus on what we do know/can see for now.

So the efficacy metric on this app, from the government side, has much to do with the efficient collection of data, and the impact of that process on borders and flow of both people AND goods. I’ve been singularly focused on airports, but this of course also includes crossing the border by road or by ship too.

I’m being repetitive here but bear with me because this part is easy to skip past and then the argumentation and rationale get twisted up. The crux of the argument for this app, from the government, is that collecting this public health — and as of last week, at three airports, customs declaration — information via an app is an improvement on doing it through a paper form, the entry kiosks, or some other process. Based on the app reviews and the experiences people have shared with me online, there are definitely people that like it, think it’s an improvement, or don’t think that it’s a big deal.

This app, for now, is taking a pre-existing process and putting that process into a mobile app/web-form. That’s it. For now. (That “for now” is extremely important). And that assessment is being made solely in terms of what we know/can see. There is data use, related software, and potential system integration or information sharing beyond this app. Information shared with government via a form can all be fed into those kinds of systems too. The impacts of that back-end infrastructure demand further exploration, including the impact of the Quarantine Act, so we’ll come back to this all.

But for now, it’s super important to understand that for many, this is seen as a simple, if not neutral, “update” to a pre-existing process. That neutrality is not real. That assertion ignores well-known racist, classist, and ageist impacts of digitization. We’ll get into more on the specific potential harms next post.

Assessing this fundamental rationale, a public interest advocacy approach that suggests the app either be shut down or made voluntary creates space for a range of opinions and use or non-use of the app to co-exist. We should value the harm reduction potential of voluntary use generally. Though it’s also possible that harm is created for those that opt out, in terms of how they’re treated at the border for that choice. That’s common. That outcome fits the reality of many at the border well. So this advocacy approach is highly imperfect. But that’s what happens when you’re dealing with a secondary impact of a primary problem: the border as a technology.

COVID Alert

Compare the highly administrative general rationale of ArriveCAN with the highly hopeful and ahistorical rationale of COVID Alert. While some have been careful with positioning COVID Alert as a complement to, or expansion of, manual contact tracing, a way to support a manual process with a digitally administered service, we need to be specific here to make one important distinction of many. One of the core components of how you do contact tracing (knowing someone’s identity) was not mirrored in the app. COVID Alert was not a process of taking one form or set of steps and replicating them with an app. If that were being proposed it would never have launched.

Moving along, in the case of COVID Alert, if historical evidence on public health efficacy of that type of experimentation would have been taken seriously, it would have stopped the app. Or at least significantly impacted the design, including governance and operational issues related to federalism. This cannot be said of the idea of moving a paper-based form or pre-existing data collection process to an online app. We need to understand that within government there is a significant perceived neutrality to the idea of ArriveCAN. That few in government think they need to take up a big public process because they are moving a pre-existing process onto an app. This does not mean that sentiment is correct (in my opinion it’s not) but it’s where we’re at.

As soon as COVID Alert was known not to be having any significant impact on public health outcomes (later in the same year that it launched, 2020), it made sense to advocate for its decommissioning. As pointed out recently, people within government advocated to have it decommissioned well before it happened.

COVID Alert was always voluntary. The point here is that COVID Alert failed on its core function many times over. It’s lack of efficacy from a public health perspective was predictable. It would never have made sense to continue to support even voluntary use. That informed the ‘shut it down’ public interest advocacy approach, from before it was launched until it was decommissioned.

Mandatory vs. Voluntary

Where this quick comparison leaves us is understanding that the basics of what the ArriveCAN app does (collect public health and travel information) is not the issue that is being debated here. That will happen with or without the app and warrants a separate conversation.

What is critical to understand are the benefits and drawbacks to forcing this information to only move through the app or web process when there are other ways to accomplish the same outcome. The government is putting hundreds of millions of dollars into “modernizing” the border. There is a rationale at play here that is both old and welcomed by some of the public. There are labour and cost implications wrapped up in this all as well. But allowing for the mandatory-ness of any of these technologies forecloses a lot of ground for other interventions on technology that we should seek to hold. We do not want to set a precedent here with mandatory technology being socially permissible in canada. Not with the ArriveCAN app, not ever.

To close: borders are the basic technology that we are talking about here. Paper forms and kiosks and apps and border guards are all modes of operationalizing the border. How we experience the border relates significantly to racism, the lottery of our birth, our age, and now, our access or lack of access to technology, our comfort or lack of comfort with technology. How our laws treat that experience when it happen through technology. How we do or don’t uphold our treaty obligations. Long list. More soon.

source: https://www.canada.ca/en/border-services-agency/services/arrivecan.html

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