This is the story of how Apple and Google collaborated to work on exposure notifications and COVID-19 contact tracking framework, which will soon be available for billions of smartphones worldwide, as reported by CNBC.
Exposure notifications is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious projects in smartphone tech history. The speed of the product was very unusual for a company like Apple, which likes to spend as much time as possible on its devices before releasing them. After working day and night on the project, the project’s release date was set to be May 1.
As COVID-19 continued to spread in over 200 countries, a small team of employees in Apple started to look for any possible way they can be of help. Smartphones were their key to track the global pandemic, so they started there. In the meantime, governments and private tech companies were issuing “contact tracing” tools to monitor people and their movements. This was helping governments track the spread of COVID-19 to some extent, but being effective without help from tech giants became impossible.
How was “Exposure Notifications” feature created?
On March 21, Swiss engineering professor Edouard Bugnion reached out to Apple to voice some concerns regarding previously used tracing systems, knowing that these systems will require Apple’s help to run smoothly while preserving user privacy. Furthermore, there were several other reports of complaints about tracking apps on the App Store.
The early team working on the problem included Ron Huang, Apple’s location services group in-charge, and Dr Guy “Bud” Tribble, Apple software vice president. They created a group of engineers willing to volunteer and started working on using Bluetooth to track phone proximity without using location details. They believed that Exposure Notifications would require user’s consent before sharing information with other phones.
Before long, the project had dozens of employees working on it under the name “Project Bubble”. They had support from Craig Federighi, senior vice president of software engineering, and Jeff Williams, the company’s chief operating officer. By the end of March, Google was on board with the idea and received the final vote of approval from the two CEOs.
Google initially had a separate project working on a similar solution for contact tracing under development called “Apollo”. Eventually, the idea was presented to Google’s vice president. The two rival companies knew they had to come together to develop what is now called “Exposure notifications”. If not, considerable gaps in coverage would result once the system is up and running.
A fair share of tech analysts have expressed their concerns about public privacy once the APIs are developed. However, the project has helped the tech world win over unlikely support from public figures and Government agencies. According to Reuters, Germany has also switched to Apple and Google’s Exposure Notifications framework to introduce potential contact tracing notifications to its citizens. However, as newer privacy concerns arise in people’s minds, Apple and Google will have to solve some significant challenges about fraud and abuse of the API, and how these companies will make sure that no privacy vulnerabilities are exploited.