In the name of preventing COVID-19 spread through Canada’s border points, a new information tracking app now being utilized is either a modern way of keeping the country safe or something dystopian out of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four novel warning of totalitarianism.
Either way, if Big Brother is not watching you, border agents with today’s technology are.
“The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) can confirm that what is being referred to is the mandatory submission of traveller information through ArriveCAN,” CBSA spokesperson Rebecca Purdy said of the app.
The ArriveCAN app was mentioned by one-time Conservative Party candidate and truck driver Benjamin Dichter during a recent U.S. television interview with Tucker Carlson and Glenn Beck.
“When I came through the border this week from the United States, I showed the agent my QR code on my phone to show my vaccine status but he said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I have all of that information on my computer.’”
Dichter, a spokesperson for the Freedom Convoy who is currently with his truck in Ottawa, said a venerable agent told him, “Your phone already popped up on my screen and it is correlated with your passport,” which means “they know everybody coming up to the border before they are there.”
Purdy said “ArriveCAN collects contact, health and travel information to protect the health and safety of travellers and expedite processing at the border” — it is “free and secure” and is the “official Government of Canada platform for travellers to provide their mandatory information 72 hours before entering Canada.”
The technology has been in place at the land borders since February 2021 and used for air travellers since November 2020, she said.
“(CBSA) does not extract information from phone signals at the port of entry,” Purdy explained, adding she was “unable to provide comment on specific cases” but “there are multiple ways for a border services officer (BSO) to have a traveller’s information available upon arrival at the Primary Inspection Line (PIL), such as a traveller’s membership in a Trusted Traveller program.”
“In all cases, the traveller is aware and has provided the information,” she said.
The CBC reported last week that upgrades to this system could include facial recognition software.
Former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian, now executive director at Global Privacy & Security by Design Centre, told The Toronto Sun on Saturday that “awareness of data collection practices and obtaining the consent of the individual are essential to preserving privacy” and it’s “not at all clear whether people realize that the ArriveCAN app is in play when they reach the border.”
“Have they consented to the automatic collection of their personal information? Do they know whether it will be made available to other government departments? Is it encrypted for secure retention? These are all questions that must first be addressed,” she pointed out.
Dichter said he wasn’t aware the CBSA would have his personal information before he talked to them and mused “what is preventing the government from using this technology in places other than the border” or extending its use beyond the pandemic?
The CBSA acknowledges the program is expanding.
“The CBSA is piloting an Advance Declaration feature within ArriveCAN that gives air travellers the option to prepare their customs and immigration declaration 72 hours in advance of their arrival in Canada,” said Purdy. “Through the new Advance CBSA Declaration, international travellers arriving at Vancouver International Airport and Toronto Pearson International Airport can now use ArriveCAN online to prepare their customs and immigration declaration before arriving in Canada. This feature will be expanded to the ArriveCAN mobile app at a later date” but “is not mandatory.”
Whatever you think of the new tracking, things have definitely changed from when there was no need to plan a trip over the border by submitting information three days ahead of time.
But it’s not 1984 — it’s 2022.
On Twitter: @joe_warmington
Dr. Ann Cavoukian is a member of our Board of Directors for the Probe Foundation.