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A person holds a smartphone set to the opening screen of the ArriveCan app on Jun. 29, 2022.Giordano Ciampini/The Canadian Press

The Canadian government is allowing COVID-19-vaccinated travellers entering the country by land border a one-time exemption from quarantine, testing and fines if they fail to enter their information on the ArriveCan app.

But the Canada Border Services Agency emphasizes that use of the digital tool – through either the app or website – remains mandatory. Those who are granted the exemption still need to provide their public-health information to a border services officer.

“The exemption is in place to make travellers aware of the requirement to complete their reporting in ArriveCan,” CBSA spokeswoman Rebecca Purdy said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. “All travellers who use this one-time exemption will be provided with information explaining their mandatory ArriveCan responsibilities for future border crossings and will be required to provide their proof of vaccination and public health information to the border services officer upon entry.”

CBSA quietly began offering the exemptions to vaccinated Canadian citizens, permanent residents and people registered under the Indian Act with a right of entry in May, extending it to vaccinated foreign nationals on July 29.

After using the exemption, vaccinated Canadian citizens, permanent residents and people registered under the Indian Act who do not submit their information through ArriveCan will be subjected to quarantine, testing and possible fines. Foreign nationals who do not submit their information on the app on subsequent trips will not be allowed to enter Canada.

Limited exceptions may be granted to people with accessibility needs (such as cognitive or physical impairments that make them unable to use the website or app), inadequate infrastructure (such as country-based censorship, or countrywide internet connectivity issues), or service disruptions, such as from natural disasters.

From May 24 to Aug. 4, 308,800 of 5,086,187 land border travellers with a right of entry – 6 per cent – were exempted, Ms. Purdy said.

The federal government launched the app on April 29, 2020, and began mandating its use for air travellers that November, extending it to all travellers by February, 2021. The government said that the required information – such as a quarantine plan and contact and travel information – is needed to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

In recent months, the app has been criticized by some travellers and border services officers as well as privacy and public-health experts who say it has contributed to snarling delays at the border and raised questions of proper governance and oversight while providing limited public-health benefit.

Matt Malone, an assistant professor at Thompson Rivers University’s Faculty of Law whose research focuses on the law of trade secrets and confidential information, said one major concern is the government’s decision to designate parts of the app as a trade secret and bar the app’s source code from disclosure, preventing the public from understanding how it works.

“The government has previously designed and deployed at-scale health measures in the form of apps that were open source,” he said. “One of the things that is particularly concerning about ArriveCan, from a privacy and data collection standpoint, is that nothing about the app is transparent.”

Mr. Malone pointed to a glitch last month that resulted in some vaccinated travellers who had submitted their proof of vaccination and all other required information via ArriveCan to quarantine unnecessarily. CBSA confirmed to Mr. Malone in an e-mail that it affected about 10,200 people. The secrecy of the app means the public can’t effectively scrutinize it to understand why and how those faulty notifications were sent, he said.

“For anyone who was following the [instructions from the] glitch during that time, you’re following an incorrect notification to stay in your house or site of quarantine. That, to me, goes directly to an infringement of liberty.”

The union representing border services officers says ArriveCan neither facilitates travel nor improves operational efficiency.

“Every border officer working on the front-line will tell you that the implementation of the ArriveCan application has seen processing times skyrocket,” Mark Weber, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union, told the House of Commons standing committee on international trade in June.

“Where a port of entry processed 60 cars per hour before, it now processes 30, if not less. At land borders, as far as traveller operations go, this means cars waiting for hours, and sometimes being redirected to another port further away. At airports, this means travellers piling up in and outside the customs area. In all locations, it translates into a frustrating experience for all involved.”

Andrew Morris, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Toronto, said the app has outlived its usefulness as a way to safeguard pubic health, telling The Canadian Press there is little value in confirming travellers are vaccinated when there is no requirement that vaccines be up to date, or that the last dose is within five or six months.

The federal government has signalled that the app will remain in place for the foreseeable future, saying it “is not only keeping travellers safe, but is part of our ongoing efforts to modernize cross-border travel.”

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