Apple-Google contact tracing project originated at Apple, developed 'within weeks'

Apple and Google contact tracking technology, which will be deployed on May 1, was developed and launched by a handful of Apple employees in less than a month, according to a new report.

The contact tracking system, now known as exposure notification, will alert an iPhone or Android user if they have recently come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19

Contact tracing, a method of tracking the sp of a disease by monitoring who an infected person may have been in contact with, is generally laborious. The Apple and Google system, now known more precisely as “exposure notification”, greatly simplifies and automates this process using smartphones.

According to a new CNBC report, the idea was born in mid-March from a small team from Apple who were thinking of ways to fight the coronavirus. At the time, these employees knew that smartphones could be essential in easing restrictions on staying at home.

Notably, the speed of the project was “very unusual” for Apple, the result of team members working to find a solution in time to help mitigate the rapid speed of COVID-19. In “a few weeks”, a dozen Apple employees were working on the technology, dubbed “Bubble”, with the support of software chief Craig Federighi and chief operating officer Jeff Williams, the de facto chief of care health.

Some of the early members of the “Bubble” team included employees from Apple’s health care division, its localization services group, and various software experts. Eventually, it expanded to include two of Apple’s internal cryptography experts, as well as other team members who donated their time.

The initial solutions developed by this team included a Bluetooth-based system that was strictly opt-in, sent anonymous alerts to nearby devices, and stored informationon in a decentralized manner. These are all features of the completed exposure notification system.

Another important factor has been to run automated contact tracking in the background on iOS, which has not been possible with current security restrictions. Contact tracing efforts already existed in places like Singapore, but were severely hampered as they required that a phone remain unlocked and that an app be opened at work.

Google, which was working on its own system codenamed “Apollo”, was said to have been integrated in late March when Android vice president Dave Burke contacted Apple about the project.

Since the two companies could not publicly announce that they were working together without the green light from their managing directors, Apple CEO Tim Cook met virtually with Google CEO Sundar Pichai to give his final seal project approval.

The Apple and Google exposure notification system is expected to be released on May 1, and the system-level API will support iPhone 6 and later. Due to Google’s involvement, the system will also work on iPhones and Android devices.

While it is ultimately up to public health organizations to develop the applications that will take advantage of the API, some countries have decided to go their own way. The UK, for example, will not use the API and will instead rely on a centralized contact tracking database.

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