Ottawa has acknowledged and said it fixed a glitch in the ArriveCAN app, which sent messages to some travellers early last week telling them they needed to quarantine even though they were fully vaccinated and there were no signs they had COVID-19.
The warning was sent to roughly three per cent of travellers and appears to have affected Apple devices only, according to the government.
“The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has identified a technical glitch with the app that affected some users earlier in the week, which could produce an erroneous notification instructing people to quarantine,” said government spokesperson Alex Cohen in a written statement.
“It’s important to emphasize that CBSA and (public health) officials – and not the app – are the ones who determine if an individual is subject to public health restrictions and needs to quarantine.”
The glitch is among a growing list of concerns about the app and its continued mandatory use.
Canada’s border agents have said up to 40 per cent of international travellers either don’t have the app or aren’t using it properly, which is contributing to long lines and delays. Ontario’s tourism sector has also warned the app is damaging the economy by discouraging cross-border travel.
The government also recently revealed it plans to keep the app long after the pandemic is over, repurposing it as a pre-customs screening tool to speed up processing times at the border.
This move has some privacy and technology experts worried that the government is using its emergency powers to push forward an agenda that has nothing to do with public health.
And if ArriveCAN’s past performance is any indication, reliability of the app could prove problematic even as the government reinvents it.
“The term I’d use for that is dishonest,” said Brenda McPhail, director of privacy, technology & surveillance at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
‘Modernizing’ the border
The government has long expressed a desire to “modernize cross-border travel” through increased digitization.
A strategy for achieving this goal was outlined in a 2019 report released by former public safety minister Ralph Goodale.
The CBSA also developed a standalone app several years ago that allows travellers to complete customs declarations online before arriving in Canada.
But uptake of the “CanBorder – eDeclaration” app was low, especially compared to ArriveCAN, which millions of Canadians were forced to download to get back into the country during the pandemic.
A comparison between the two apps on the Apple Store, for example, shows eDeclaration has 318 total ratings, whereas ArriveCAN has nearly 500,000.
Global News asked the CBSA how many times eDeclaration has been downloaded since it was launched. The agency didn’t respond to this question.
“The agency’s traveller modernization initiative was already being developed when the pandemic hit,” said CBSA spokesperson Rebecca Purdy in a written statement sent July 7.
“Due to Canadians’ familiarity with the ArriveCAN app and it’s widespread association with border processing, the CBSA opted to incorporate the advance declaration components being developed into (ArriveCAN) rather than the distinct application envisioned.”
A ‘slippery slope’
McPhail was part of an advisory panel set up to provide oversight for the COVID Alert app, another piece of technology the government deployed in July 2020 to slow the spread of COVID-19.
She said unlike ArriveCAN, which was developed in secret by contractors who had pre-existing relationships with the government, COVID Alert had checks and balances in place to ensure transparency and accountability.
COVID Alert was developed in the open, McPhail said, the code was shared publicly, an expert advisory panel was set up to provide oversight, data about how the app was used was published regularly, and there was a promise to shut the app down if it proved ineffective, which it ultimately did.
“When you make something in secret … there is absolutely no guarantee to the public that the process is going to be the best,” McPhail said.
Carole Piovesan, a managing partner at INQ Law and co-chair of the COVID Alert advisory panel, said there were valuable lessons learned about transparency when developing COVID Alert that can be applied to future technologies.
She also said she would like to see more information shared publicly about how ArriveCAN is being used.
This doesn’t necessarily mean sharing every detail, or launching an advisory panel every time a new app is rolled out, but it does mean having a “sufficient public engagement strategy” to make sure any new technology meets expectations, she said.
“We look to our government to be obviously accountable, but also efficient,” Piovesan said. “If we can use tools in a manner that achieves accountability, good governance and efficiency, we will want that from a modern government.”
Another major concern experts raise about new technologies is the inability to prove whether they work the way they’re supposed to.
For example, there appears to be no way to independently verify whether the government’s fix for the recent ArriveCAN glitch was successful.
“The CBSA can attest that the issue was resolved on July 20 at 6 p.m. The fix was thoroughly tested by the CBSA technical teams before it was implemented, per standard procedures,” said CBSA spokesperson Maria Ladouceur.
“ArriveCAN remains an important and mandatory tool that help inform public health advice and is an integral part of Canada’s monitoring program for new variants,”
Phil Dawson, a technology and artificial intelligence expert, said governments and businesses need to be accountable for the products they release.
He said there are several non-profit organizations and private companies working to develop third-party verification tools for new technologies. But, in general, software developers create new applications without any means of independently testing their efficacy.
“What we really don’t have is visibility on the types of tools that we need to vet technology, to measure its quality,” he said.