UC San Diego scientist wins coveted MacArthur 'genius' grant

Stefan Savage, a UC San Diego cybersecurity guru who revealed ways to thwart email spammers and showed how hackers could remotely steal cars, has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, a coveted honor reserved for people whose work conveys a sense of genius.

Savage was one of 24 people chosen this year to receive the so-called “genius grant,” which provides each recipient with a no-strings-attached sum of $625,000 to be paid over a five-year period.

The MacArthur Foundation of Chicago said it is honoring everyone from Jason De Leon, a Michigan anthropologist who studies the human consequences of immigration at the U.S-Mexico border, to Rhiannon Giddens, a singer-songwriter from North Carolina known for her contributions to folk and country music.

MacArthur Fellows for 2017

Reached by email on a cross-country flight, Savage said Tuesday night that he was in “shock, and not just a bit of impostor syndrome, plus gratitude.”

The 48-year-old researcher also said he isn’t sure how he’ll spend the $625,000, noting, “I think the bigger effect is that the associated recognition may make it easier to talk to some people about applications of our work who might otherwise be harder to reach.”

Savage becomes one of at least 17 San Diego County residents to win the award, which is made by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to support “creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.”

The award is given for past work and to support what a person might do in the future. Previous recipients include Lin Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould.

Savage has long been a bright light in UC San Diego’s department of computer science and engineering, largely for investigating the economics of cybercrime, creating better ways to defend against the spread of malicious software, and for illustrating that cars are vulnerable to hackers.

His work on vehicle hacking has drawn particular attention, especially in car-crazy California. Seven years ago, Savage and his colleagues demonstrated ways to hack an automobile remotely. In research papers, they laid out how hackers could commandeer a car’s engine and brakes, and listen in on conversations people were having inside the vehicle.

Such hacking doesn’t occur on a widespread basis. But cyber experts say the potential for abuse is there, and the act of car hacking has started to surface in popular culture, appearing in such TV series as “Sherlock.”

UC San Diego officials pointed out on Tuesday that Savage “also investigated how the idiosyncrasies of the automobile sector’s supply chains give rise to compromised car software — and make it harder to fix that software.”

The problem has led Savage to push for regulation of web-connected devices in cars and trucks.

Savage hasn’t merely focused on ground vehicles. In 2014, his research team at UC San Diego revealed that some of the apps and wireless devices used by private pilots could be exploited by hackers. The potential vulnerabilities involved everything from a plane’s GPS system to related data that told pilots about the position of nearby airplanes.

Earlier in his career, Savage dealt with one of the most vexing issues faced by computer users: email spam. He partly defused the problem by pointing out that a comparatively small number of banks would process the credit card transactions that hackers need to turn their online ventures in money. That led authorities to pressure some financial institutions not to handle the transactions.

At the time, Savage issued a statement saying that, “Fighting cyber threats requires more than just understanding technologies and the risks they’re associated with; it requires understanding human nature.

“At its heart, cybersecurity is a human issue. It’s about conflict, and computers are merely the medium where this conflict takes place.”

The MacArthur Foundation chose to honor Savage for such work — a message he nearly didn’t get Tuesday due to his skepticism about unfamiliar messages, whether they’re from a phone or a computer.

“I don’t answer calls from numbers I don’t recognize because I assume they’re scams,” Savage told the Union-Tribune.

“The MacArthur people don’t leave messages because they take the secrecy thing seriously… so they just kept calling. I eventually looked up the number and found that one of their program managers who had worked on environmental projects had listed the number.

“I figured that they wanted to talk about the diesel engine defeat device work that Kirill Levchenko led, and I was involved with, so I called back. There was some confusion but we worked it out.”

Savage is about to enjoy a period of great creativity and satisfaction, based on the experience of another UC San Diego scientist — Carol Padden, who is dean of the Division of Social Sciences

Padden, who won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010, told the Union-Tribune on Tuesday, “It changed my life immeasurably. It has brought me and my work much more visibility than I ever had before. It has opened doors, and made it easier to meet people.

“With the MacArthur Fellowship, I felt that I was finally a scientist in the broadest sense of the word, that I was part of an international society of people whose lives are about discovery and inquiry. I’m forever grateful for the recognition.”


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