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Federal privacy commissioner investigating controversial ArriveCAN app

Canada’s federal privacy watchdog has launched an investigation into the controversial ArriveCAN app following a recent complaint.

PHOTO: Critics are calling on the federal government to eliminate the much-criticized ArriveCAN app, which was supposed to be temporary. – Jul 8, 2022
Canada’s federal privacy watchdog has launched an investigation into the controversial ArriveCAN app following a recent complaint

“Our office has received and is currently investigating a complaint that raises concerns with respect to the collection of personal information through ArriveCAN and subsequent use of that information,” said the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada in an email dated July 27.

Concerns about the type of personal data collected by ArriveCAN, how long this information is stored, and the way data is shared between different government agencies have been raised by privacy and legal experts over the past two years.

In June 2020, a group of federal Conservatives also asked the privacy commissioner to investigate ArriveCAN due to concerns they had about the potential misuse of data. The privacy commissioner responded two months later and said that he reviewed the app’s privacy conditions and that he didn’t have any concerns at the time.

Global News asked the privacy commissioner’s office for more details about the recent complaint – who made it, when it was made, and how long the investigation might take. The office declined to answer these questions, but confirmed the complaint is unrelated to the request sent by the Conservatives.

“Given the ongoing investigation and consultations, we do not have further details to provide at this time,” the privacy commissioner said.

Global News learned of the recent complaint from technology expert Bianca Wylie, who has closely followed developments surrounding the ArriveCAN app.

Wylie sent an email to the office of the privacy commissioner requesting information about the app and whether the commissioner had any concerns about its continued mandatory use at the border.

The office of the privacy commission responded to Wylie’s request indicating that it was currently investigating a complaint and therefore couldn’t provide additional information.

The email sent to Wylie did, however, say the privacy commissioner consulted the government and provided recommendations to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC)) and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) when the ArriveCAN app was being developed.

These recommendations included the need to limit the type of data being collected as much as possible and ensure it was relevant to monitoring and enforcing the quarantine rules imposed by the government early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m glad to see someone has taken this action,” Wylie said. “But I don’t know enough to say where that’s going to go.”

ArriveCAN was first launched as a voluntary app in April 2020 as a way of collecting personal information needed by public health officials to enforce quarantine rules.

The app was made mandatory for everyone entering Canada by air in November 2020. This was then extended to anyone crossing the border by land in March 2021.

Its continued mandatory use has come under intense scrutiny over the past few months, especially as other public health measures fell to the wayside, such as mandatory masking and vaccine requirements.

The union representing Canada’s border agents has also said the app is a huge drain on resources and has turned front-line CBSA officers into IT consultants because they now spend much of their time helping people figure out how to use the app rather than focusing on security.

Conservatives hammer Liberals over ArriveCan app, delays at airports – Jun 16, 2022

Privacy and technology experts, including Wylie, have also warned that the government is repurposing the app into a pre-customs screening tool that has nothing to do with public health.

And, most recently, the government acknowledged a glitch in the app’s software that sent about three per cent of Apple smartphone users who crossed the border last week an erroneous message saying they needed to quarantine even though there was no indication they had COVID-19.’

Wylie said the growing laundry list of problems with the app should cause the government to think carefully about why it’s still using the app and whether it still serves a public good.

“The concern is there’s no governance in place for this app that is public,” she said. “And this was missing from the beginning.”

The government, meanwhile, has consistently said ArriveCAN is the most effective and efficient way for international travellers to submit proof of vaccination and personal information needed to monitor COVID-19 at the border.

The CBSA has also said the app is better than the paper-based method that was used to collect this information early in the pandemic, citing a 2021 report from the auditor general that found the app significantly improved the accuracy of data collected.

Government health officials have also said the app is a useful tool for tracking new variants of concern as they enter Canada, such as the BA.5 variant, and that the app will be useful should another wave of the virus hit later this summer or in the fall.

Global News asked the government if it was aware of the recent complaint and if it is cooperating with the privacy commissioner’s investigation. A response to these questions was not received by publication.


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