Delay of US-Canada border reopening raises questions

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS — There’s no reason why the U.S.-Canada border shouldn’t already be open, yet the two countries have mutually decided to extend border restrictions until at least July 21. One has to wonder if it has something to do with the lack of readiness for digital sanitary passports meant to collect your private health information.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government doused the hopes of North American summer road-trippers last week, as it was announced that the full reopening of the border between the two nations would have to wait. That is, unless these governments consider you “essential” — a word that should irk anyone wanting to avoid a slippery slope straight into a dystopian future.

COVID-19 rates in the two countries are similarly low, and other countries with comparable infection levels — notably those in Europe — have reopened their borders to foreign tourists already. All visitors are required to present negative tests upon boarding a flight. But the possibility of travel nonetheless exists.

Americans traveling to Europe currently have a privacy advantage over Europeans traveling within the Continent, but it may not last.

The EU Digital Covid Certificate went live this month, harmonized with mobile phone applications. According to the European Union’s website, the digital passport is proof that a person has either been vaccinated against COVID-19, has recovered from it, or has tested negative for the virus. The Irish government spilled the beans on June 20, when its deputy head of government, Leo Varadkar, clarified in a radio interview that unvaccinated people will indeed be able to travel within Europe as long as they have a Digital Covid Certificate showing a negative test result.

Apparently vaccination wasn’t really the endgame here; the digital passport was. Or can someone indeed show up at the border of a European country with a simple sheet of paper showing a negative Covid test result and have the welcome mat rolled out? If this is about health, then that should be the case. If this is about tracking and tracing, then having the digital certificate on a mobile phone will be a requirement.

It’s almost as if authorities realize there’s a significant number of people who aren’t interested in getting the vaccine for whatever personal reason, but governments still want a way to ensure that these people don’t slip through the electronic dragnet.

What does the current European travel reality have to do with the situation between the U.S. and Canada? It makes you wonder why they’re waiting to open the border. Are the two countries working to create a similar digital health certificate?

The Biden administration has rejected the notion of a digital vaccine passport, citing privacy concerns. But that’s really not much different from the position of European governments. At the moment, you don’t need a digital health certificate to live a normal life in France, with the exception of large events and nightclubs set to reopen in early July. When you enter places like public swimming pools, however, you’re “invited” (but not obligated) to scan a QR code posted on the door, or to fill out a form with your name and phone number so that health authorities can harass you to self-isolate if it’s discovered that an infected person was at the facility at the same time you were.

But what about international travel? When asked on ABC’s “Good Morning America” about vaccine passports for international travel, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas replied, “We’re taking a very close look at that.”

If the U.S. acquiesces to digital health passports for international travel, forcing Americans into this global dragnet, then it’s game over for the privacy of Americans, too. The Canadian media is already reporting that the ArriveCan app, currently used for Canadian travelers to clear customs online when re-entering the country, will soon have a new feature allowing users to upload health information.

Is the border-reopening delay really about health? Or is it just a way to ensure that data-collection systems are ready for deployment? There’s only one way to find out: Stick to hard-copy paperwork, refuse to upload health information to any apps, and see how you’re treated at the border.