The Public Health Agency of Canada and Canada Border Services Agency Are Damaging Public Trust with ArriveCAN
Mandatory Use of ArriveCAN was Built and Runs on Public Confusion about the Quarantine Act
This is the seventh post in a series on ArriveCAN, please see prior posts for more context and background.
Earlier this week I had the opportunity to take part in two conversations, one short (Metro Morning) one long (The Big Story Podcast) about ArriveCAN. Having those conversations helped crystallize a few things for me, all of which relate to the democratic harm that this current project is doing, and has done, in terms of public trust. That’s the focus of this post.
Before getting into it: quick follow up on correspondence. I have not heard back from either Minister Mendicino (Minister of Public Safety/oversees Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) ) nor Minister Duclos (Minister of Heath, oversees Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC)) on my requests for plans about shifting the app to voluntary use. Emails were sent in mid-July and follow-ups sent this month. Nothing.
The Foundational Public Confusion About ArriveCAN as Created by the Federal Government
In our conversation on Metro Morning, we talked about why shifting the app from mandatory to voluntary use is the right thing to do. In that conversation, I was asked, wouldn’t that shift to voluntary use defeat the purpose of the app? It was an excellent question. It brought me back to why the discourse around this app is such a mess. This mess has cascaded into poor reporting and highly divisive discourse. And this mess sits in the hands of the federal government, it is of their creation entirely.
The best way to answer this question may be to explain what the government should have done back in 2021 when it launched the app.
It should have gone like this: When you come to Canada, we need certain information from you to help us during this public health crisis. We are required to collect and use it under legislation called the Quarantine Act. Here are the ways you can share this information with us: through the use of a voluntary app (ArriveCAN), through our airport kiosks, or through a paper form you can fill out before or at the border.
The collection and use of this information is what is and was mandatory. The app never had to exist, nevermind be mandatory. The government *made* its use mandatory. Nothing in our laws or policies said they had to. It was a choice. And in 2020/2021, the accessibility issues related to that choice create major questions about issues of equity as understood by the federal public servants involved in this project that allowed this program to launch the way that it did.
In short, the government made this moment, in a public health crisis to boot, very confusing and very uncomfortable for people.
If ArriveCAN was made voluntary tomorrow, it would not mean we wouldn’t have to share information with the government under the Quarantine, Act. It would just mean that we would have choices about how we would do it. It would mean that the risks that are specific to the use of a mobile/web app in this context would be optional for people to take on. The risks related to the government having sensitive information about people stored in their software systems? That risk is not going anywhere with a voluntary app.
Because the government conflated, and continues to conflate, the mandatory collection and use of our data with the mandatory use of this app we have major public confusion. The government knows — they absolutely and definitively know — that we the general public are not well versed in what The Quarantine Act (2005) is, how it works, nor how it applies to the moment we are currently in. Including how it applies — and does not apply — to a mandatory app.
The Federal Privacy Commissioner and The Quarantine Act Implications
On The Big Story podcast, we had a chance to expand a bit more on the confusion created by this conflation of mandatory data collection and use with mandatory tech. As you can imagine, the mandatory use of tech, by the Canada Border Services Agency no less, has raised concerns about data collection and use. There has not been an audit of the app. The public governance and oversight for the app is non-existent. This is all bad. Really bad. But let’s park that and get back to the mandatory/voluntary situation.
The ways the government can use our data, when it is collected under the rationale of emergency powers (The Quarantine Act), contains an exception to standard Privacy Act norms about consent. You can read about it here in this letter to the Shadow Ministers in August 2020.
The important point is this: whether the government collects your contact-tracing and quarantine plan information via an app, a kiosk, a paper form, or verbally, they have exceptional leeway to use it and share it however they deem necessary in order to implement the Quarantine Act. This is what public health emergency powers look like. The app is tied into those emergency powers at the moment, but as we can all clearly see, the app is taking on much more of a border modernization purpose.
Which brings us to the last piece of this post. The government has been falling down hard on communications for public trust from day one, as we’ve stepped through here. They also failed badly in how they managed communications related to the erroneous quarantine notice glitch with the app. And now they’re not disclosing what they clearly have well developed — their future plans for the app.
Governmental Failure to Disclose Future Plans for ArriveCAN
Thanks to the excellent open government inspired Ottawa Civic Tech Project “Large Government of Canada IT projects”, we can see the updated budget and timeline for the ArriveCAN app. The project looks at data from 2016, 2019, and the most recent addition, 2022. Take some time with the project to learn more about the types of IT projects we’re all funding, how they’re organized, neat stats on the topic, etc. Lots to learn and a great public accountability tool.
What we can see from the information below is that ArriveCAN’s development is slated to be complete in September 2023. We can see its budget is now $46.4 million. What we aren’t seeing from the government is any related level of detail in its communications to us about future plans for the app. The last we heard about the pandemic border measures, which have been tied up with ArriveCAN, was from the Public Health Agency of Canada at the end of June: “Today, the Government of Canada announced it is extending current border measures for travellers entering Canada. Requirements for travellers arriving to Canada are expected to remain in effect until at least September 30, 2022.”
We’ve had vague hints from the Public Safety Minister that ArriveCAN can offer us more than pandemic support, it can modernize the border. If the government was being adequately forthcoming with us, we’d be in on the specifics of their plan to use it for border modernization. We’d know more about the related timing to shift from mandatory/pandemic/Quarantine Act rationale to voluntary/border modernization rationale. There are public service operations plans that are required to align with the software development plans clearly underway. Sharing them would be one step in the right direction at this current juncture.
Note that this September 2023 date most likely means when the first full build of the app is done. It does not including ongoing maintenance nor updates nor expansions. Here we have both budget and operations — and most importantly, policy — gaps that do not serve us well for dealing with tech that morphs or shifts over time.
The government knows what it’s doing with ArriveCAN. Rather than proactively bringing us, the public, along in the conversation, they’ve allowed confusion and distrust to be sown and to grow.
ArriveCAN has always been a poster-child for bad technology stewardship. But far worse, the governance and communications decisions that have been made are bad for governance and bad for democracy. Public trust matters. Good intentions and efficiencies aren’t enough to damage it. Relying on our lack of understanding of emergency powers and relying on collective goodwill during an emergency to advance border modernization goals? This is an invitation for cynicism. It’s corrosive to democracy. And it’s all so unnecessary.
With intentional communications and clearly shared plans, this government could have grown trust in both government and its approach to public tech. It could have heeded the privacy commissioner’s prescient warning about the trust harms that come from the use of mandatory tech. There was a path that would have allowed us to best serve everyone during a public health crisis.
Now the priority goal is to mitigate the latest round of unnecessary damage. People cannot engage in their democracy properly when they are set up to fail and it’s a damning situation to see the government do it to itself.