Canada’s vaccine passport to face federal privacy probe

Canada’s vaccine passport to face federal privacy probe

Canada’s vaccine passport for travelers faces a federal investigation after a privacy-related complaint was lodged against it.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Canada (OPC) confirmed the probe against the ArriveCAN app, which serves as a vaccine passport for Canadians and tourists. The anonymously-filed complaint urged the commissioner to investigate how the app collects and uses personal information. First introduced in April 2020 during the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Ottawa later mandated the app for Canadians and tourists alike who wish to enter the country.

“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 information,” the OPC said in a July 27 email. The office penned the email in response to a request sent by technology expert Bianca Wylie with regard to the app. The commissioner’s office added that it could not provide more information as the probe is still ongoing.

This was not the first time ArriveCAN came under scrutiny. Back in June 2020, the OPC was asked to investigate the app. It eventually concluded in August that ArriveCAN had no problems with regard to privacy.

Privacy advocates have questioned the app ever since its introduction. Their questions centered on what kind of personal data it collects and how long this data is retained and shared between government entities.

The OPC’s email to Wylie noted that Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien consulted Ottawa and provided recommendations to the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) during ArriveCAN’s development. These recommendations included limiting the types of data being collected and ensuring the app was relevant to monitoring and enforcement of COVID-19 quarantine rules.

“I’m glad to see someone has taken this action, but I don’t know enough today where that’s going to go,” said the technology expert.

ArriveCAN beset by other issues aside from privacy

ArriveCAN was first launched as voluntary in April 2020, but was made mandatory for people entering Canada by air in November 2020. It was then extended to anyone entering Canada by land in March 2021. (Related: Canadians will be required to present COVID vaccine passport when traveling by air, sea or train.)

However, it gained notoriety for its technical glitches that often left Canadians frustrated and stranded at airports. The labor union representing Canadian border agents also blasted ArriveCAN for turning front-line CBSA officers into IT consultants. Glitches on the app were causing border officers to help figure out how to use it instead of focusing on security.

One such glitch affected Apple smartphone owners who recently entered Canada. These individuals received an erroneous message from ArriveCAN saying they had to quarantine themselves despite having no COVID-19 symptoms. Ottawa eventually acknowledged this issue.

The continued use of ArriveCAN as a vaccine passport also came under intense scrutiny, given the fact that other COVID-19 measures such as mandatory face masks and vaccine mandates were being eschewed. Wylie and other experts also warned that the Canadian government is repurposing the app into a pre-customs screening tool that has nothing do to with public health.

According to Wylie, the myriad of problems with ArriveCAN ought to make Ottawa think carefully about why it still uses the app. “The concern is there’s no governance in place for this app that is public, and this was missing from the beginning,” she said.

Writing for Reclaim The Net, online journalist Didi Rankovic pointed out that ArriveCAN serves as an “obvious example of the worst case scenario that many have been warning about – [that of] COVID-19 measures introduced under the guise of needing to protect public health, only to morph into permanent restrictive policies and tools, with an ever-shifting purpose.”

Watch Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talk about implementing vaccine passports via the ArriveCAN app below.

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