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Contact-tracing apps were designed to help supplement the traditional, labor-intensive approach to contact tracing, which involves hundreds of people interviewing those who have been exposed and painstakingly piecing together information about what they did and who they may have come into contact with. In the absence of a vaccine, digital technology was seen as critical for getting people back to work faster and economies up and running.

The value of contact-tracing apps is “really questionable,” says Sean McDonald, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, an independent think tank based in Canada. “The underlying science of proximity as...

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