Profile of Apple-Google contact tracing API reveals how project started

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A profile of Swiss data scientists has offered more information about how the contact tracing project jointly ran by Apple and Google came about, including how the team got the attention of the tech giants.

The Apple and Google-developed contact tracing API is being used to help track the spread of COVID-19, with health organizations around the world using the API in apps intended to securely and privately monitor the virus. While it is still being rolled out globally, a report on how the project came into being reveals it is down to a group of data scientists in Switzerland.

The profile by Neue Zurcher Zeitung on Saturday explains how VMWare founding CTO Edouard Bugnion heard about a suggestion by epidemiologist Marcel Salathe concerning using an app to track infections in a pandemic. In trying to solve the problem, Salathe observed existing apps in Asia that relied on GPS, but also used a large amount of personal data to accomplish the task.

Bugnion got in contact with Spanish data protection expert Carmela Troncoso to work on a way to make a contact tracing app without using GPS tracking. It was realized Bluetooth LE would be an answer as a data-saving option that doesn't rely on direct location data, and with the further use of anonymized ID codes, it helped ensure the privacy of users.

Other researchers around the world joined the Swiss effort, but the team determined the assistance of Apple would be required due to Apple's strict policies over Bluetooth usage in iPhones. Bugnion used contacts based in California to try and get in touch with Apple, but quickly discovered it was hard to establish communication with the company as so many people are contacting it every day.

After being called back by Apple on March 21, Bugnion started explaining the idea in an email, which was then followed by a series of meetings explaining what Apple would have to do, namely relaxing the policies. On determining Apple may not go through with it due to security concerns, Bugnion got hold of Apple head of Health Strategic Initiatives Myoung Cha, who reported to COO Jeff Williams.

By April 5, Apple was willing to invest resources, but it was determined Google had to assist, and that an interoperable system needed to be made. By April 10, Apple and Google made its contact tracing announcement.

"The fact that we, as an international team, had such an impact on these giants, and the fact that we became one of their main partners, is an expression of the high-quality computer science research in Switzerland," said Bugnion.
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