Travellers hate it. Border guards say it’s a waste of time. Even some doctors say it should go.
Like it or not, ArriveCAN is the digital beast that just won’t die.
The app was supposed to be a short-term solution to make sure everyone who entered Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic followed the government’s strict 14-day quarantine rules.
It was launched in April 2020 and made mandatory in November of that year.
But as vaccination rates rise, and as other public health measures fall, the app has quietly morphed into something else.
And anyone who hoped the app might soon disappear is likely going to be disappointed with the results.
“ArriveCAN was originally created for COVID-19, but it has technological capacity beyond that,” Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said during a June 28 press conference.
Mendocino’s remarks signal plans to use ArriveCAN as part of the Liberal government’s efforts to “modernize our border” and “shrink the amount of time” it takes to go through customs.
A recent update to the app, which the government released without fanfare, allows passengers arriving at Toronto Pearson and Vancouver International airports to complete their customs declaration forms before landing in Canada.
This may not seem like a big change, but it’s a radical shift from what the app was originally intended to do: collect public health data.
“This is a bait and switch,” said Bianca Wylie, a technology expert and partner at Digital Public. “We should be advocating to get rid of it and, at the minimum, make sure it’s turned into a voluntary technology.”
This new “optional” feature on the app can be used in place of the old paper forms and digital kiosks people are used to seeing at airports in Canada. The government says this feature will be expanded to Montreal’s Trudeau international airport later this summer and to other airports in the future.
But if past concerns about the app’s functionality and usefulness are any indication, this latest iteration of ArriveCAN could prove to be another headache for already stressed and weary travellers.
“The fact that the government is experimenting during a public health crisis, rather than prioritizing full investment in things that we know will work, is problematic,” Wylie said. “If technology isn’t doing what it was supposed to do, you should shut it down.”
In response to questions about the app, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said the rollout of the government’s border modernization strategy was already underway when the pandemic hit.
This strategy, which included plans to use a mobile app that allows travellers to submit customs declarations before arriving in Canada, has been vetted and approved by the federal privacy commissioner, the CBSA said.
“Due to Canadians’ familiarity with the ArriveCAN app and its widespread association with border processing, the CBSA opted to incorporate the advance declaration components being developed into that platform rather than the distinct application envisioned,” said CBSA spokesperson Rebecca Purdy.
“Once travel and public health measures are no longer needed, ArriveCAN will continue to be available for those who choose digital interaction at the border.”
Who designed ArriveCAN?
Vital as the app is to international travel, there’s little information available to the public about who designed it and its maintenance.
An online search of the government’s database that lists public contracts with private companies turned up nothing that specifically mentions the app.
There’s also no information about who built it on either the government’s website or on Google Play or the Apple App Store, which is where it can be downloaded.
In response to a request to provide information on ArriveCAN’s origins, the CBSA said it developed the app in partnership with five private companies: BDO Canada, TEKSystems, Coradix Technology Consulting, Dalian Enterprises and GCStrategies.
All of the companies, except GCStrategies, had pre-existing contracts with the government, the CBSA said, and were selected for the job because it made building the app faster.
“These contracts were not put in place specifically for the development of ArriveCAN, but were utilized when needed to augment and accelerate the development of ArriveCAN to respond to the rapidly changing pandemic environment,” said CBSA spokesperson Rebecca Purdy.
In total, the CBSA has spent $24.7 million developing and maintaining the app, Purdy said. An additional $2.2 million has been spent on advertising.
The app has been used more than 21 million times to upload mandatory health information, she said, adding that when used as a pre-customs screening tool, early data suggests it speeds up processing at the border by 30 per cent.
Global News contacted each of the companies hired to work on the app.
Colin Wood, president of Coradix, said his company and Dalian Enterprises jointly provided the government with cloud and mobile app development services.
He described the app as a “success” and said the government should be recognized for building it and launching it under “incredibly tight timelines”
“I hope (this) part of the story isn’t overlooked,” he said.
Wood also said he couldn’t offer specific details about the work his company performed due to the “sensitive nature of the project” and a non-disclosure agreement signed with Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC).
GCStrategies offered a similar reply, while TEKSystems said it helps CBSA with migrating applications to the cloud, internet security and technology upgrades. BDO Canada didn’t provide a response.
Concerns about transparency
Why and how these companies were selected to design ArriveCAN concerns some experts.
That’s because the government, faced with a rapidly evolving public health crisis, chose companies it had pre-existing relationships with to develop and maintain the app rather than launching an open and transparent competitive bidding process.
“The government can’t just sit back and say, ‘Well, these are the suppliers we’ve used, and just because we’ve used them in the past, we’re going to continue to use them,’” said Jillian Kohler, a professor of public health at the University of Toronto.
Kohler, whose research focuses on transparency, accountability and anti-corruption in the pharmaceutical sector, said government purchasing of goods and services poses the “greatest risk for corruption” of all government functions.
That’s why it’s so important that the process for selecting government contractors is open and transparent, she said.
While there’s no indication of corruption in the case of ArriveCAN, rules that govern how contracts are awarded exist to ensure public funds are spent wisely.
“What we are seeing in Canada, given there has been no open, competitive process for ArriveCAN, is alarming,” Kohler said.
Kohler said the government must allow other companies to compete for these contracts if ArriveCAN is going to be used for any purpose in the future.
She also said the government can’t rely on the fact it was acting during an emergency to justify its continued relationship with these companies if the same public health risks no longer apply.
“That just doesn’t fly in this day and age,” she said.
How useful is the app?
There’s no real clear-cut way to measure how effective the app is, but government data can shed some light on its usefulness – as a public health tool at least.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), data collected through the app has been used to complete roughly 700,000 in-person quarantine inspections.
These visits were made by either private security agents contracted by the government or law enforcement officers who showed up at a person’s home and made sure they were following the rules.
The number of in-person inspections represents about 14 per cent of the total 4.7 million travellers forced to quarantine after entering Canada during the pandemic.
PHAC also uses data collected through the app to contact anyone who tests positive on a government-mandated arrival test.
Of the roughly 100,000 people who’ve tested positive since the start of the pandemic, about 60 per cent were contacted using this method, PHAC said. The remaining 40 per cent couldn’t be reached.
An auditor general’s report from December 2021 said the app was an improvement over the previous paper-based method of collecting personal details from international travellers.
Prior to ArriveCAN, health officials were missing contact details for about 20 per cent of travellers, the report said. This figure dropped to about eight per cent after the app was made mandatory.
But the report also contained some harsh criticism of the government’s handling of its quarantine measures.
“This is not a success story,” said auditor general Karen Hogan during a December 2021 press conference.
The report found that because of “errors or inconsistencies in the collection of traveller contact information” about 80,000 on-arrival test results and 57,000 post-arrival test results couldn’t be matched to ArriveCAN traveller data.
This means that in many cases the government was unable to contact people to follow up with them about their test results and to let them know about quarantine requirements, the report said.
The report also found that there was little followup with non-compliant travellers, even after law enforcement got involved, and that public health officials were unaware of what actions police took in the majority of cases.
Of the roughly 140,000 people PHAC flagged to police as “priority referrals” for potentially violating quarantine rules, the agency didn’t know what, if any, enforcement action was taken in about 57,000 cases.
The auditor general said this was a failure because it reduced the government’s ability to effectively monitor and enforce quarantine measures.
Fewer than 600 tickets have been issued to people for breaching quarantine conditions since the pandemic began.
An additional 8,000 tickets have been issued for refusing to go to “government approved accommodation” and another 3,500 tickets were issued for showing up at the border without having completed a pre-arrival COVID-19 test.
No end date in sight
Another concern raised about ArriveCAN is that the government hasn’t been clear about when it will stop using the app or how it plans to phase out its mandatory public-health components.
During a June 14 press conference, Omar Alghabra, minister of transportation, said the app is a “very useful tool” for making sure international travellers are fully vaccinated.
He also said keeping the app would be useful if another wave of the virus emerges, which some public health experts, including Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam, have warned might happen.
But Alghabra didn’t offer any specific benchmarks the government will use to decide when the vaccine mandate for international travellers will be lifted and when ArriveCAN will no longer be mandatory.
“ArriveCAN is a tool that public health and CBSA are utilizing to verify and ensure that incoming travellers have the proof of vaccinations required,” Alghabra said.
Wylie, the technology expert, said these kinds of statements are troubling because they suggest the government has no plans for how and when they’ll make the app voluntary.
She’s also worried repurposing the app – after forcing millions of people to download it – could undermine public confidence in similar technologies in the future.
“These apps are damaging trust in the government,” she said.