Canada will keep ArriveCan for its data on COVID-19-positive travellers: sources

The federal government has no intention of dropping the controversial ArriveCan app because it gives the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) key health information about travellers who test positive for COVID-19 through testing at airports and land borders, senior government sources tell CTV News.

PHAC uses data that travellers enter in the ArriveCan app to identify the vaccination status and destinations of people who test positive as a part of the mandatory random testing program at Canada’s borders.

Since provinces are no longer collecting significant data from PCR tests done at the local and provincial level, senior government sources describe the data gained from the ArriveCan app as the last line of COVID defence in Canada.

PHAC said the selection process for who gets tested at a border crossing is determined by a computer algorithm that “selects a representative sample of fully vaccinated travellers based on statistical parameters,” according to a statement from the agency.

Those statistical parameters set by PHAC are based in part on global epidemiology trends, which a senior government source admits can make travellers coming to Canada from countries that have a low vaccination rate or are experiencing an outbreak, more likely to be flagged for mandatory random testing.

PHAC believes border testing and information gained from the ArriveCan app make the agency “better prepared for possible future waves.”

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease expert with Toronto's University Health Network, believes that detailed data gained through the ArriveCan app can help PHAC, if the information is being used properly.

“This could possibly give Canada some intelligence as to what circulating variants of concern there may be in other parts of the world, which can be very helpful information,” said Bogoch.

ArriveCan data is only accessed by PHAC if a traveller tests positive for COVID-19, but all data inputted into the app “will be retained for a minimum of two years following its last administration use” by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), according to the privacy notice within the ArriveCan app.

The same privacy notice also states personal information submitted in the app can be shared with a wide variety of groups, including “other government intuitions, as well as provincial, territorial, municipal governments or international health organizations.”

Conservative Transportation Critic Melissa Lantsman said she is concerned that the government did not previously make a clear link between information travellers put in the ArriveCan app and testing information gathered by PHAC.

“I think most Canadians don't know that. And I think Canadians have a right to know where their data is being used, how long it's being used for and what the purpose of that is,” said Lantsman.

Mandatory random testing was suspended on June 11 to help ease congestion at airports and was scheduled to be reinstated on July 1. However, the federal government pushed back its return until mid-July.

A senior government source said the reason for testing being pushed back was due to the CBSA being unable to update the ArriveCan app to help accommodate unvaccinated Canadian travellers by the Canada Day deadline.

Industry and union leaders have been calling for the federal government to end the requirement to fill out the ArriveCan app to help alleviate the chaos at airports.

Mark Weber, president of the Customs and Immigration Union, believes scrapping the app would improve the experience for those entering Canada.

“Removing the app would shorten wait times, would give our officers less duties and would allow us to focus more on doing the customs work that we're really there to do,” said Weber.

Alexander Cohen, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, whose office is responsible for ArriveCan, said that the app helps streamline the travel process by ensuring that people entering Canada fill out necessary documents before seeing a customs agent.

Cohen stated that 99.71 per cent of travellers coming to Canada by air “are successfully filling out” their information in the app, a number that Weber said is that high only because customs agents help travellers fill the app out.

“The real numbers are closer to 60 per cent or 70 per cent, who arrived with the app completed and awful lot arrive not even knowing that they had to complete the app,” said Weber.