Computer Science Professor Stephen Checkoway Receives Golden Goose Award

September 22, 2021

Amanda Nagy

Stephen Checkoway.
Assistant Professor of Computer Science Stephen Checkoway is a recipient of the Golden Goose Award for his role in research that led automakers to adopt new security practices.
Photo credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington

Assistant Professor of Computer Science Stephen Checkoway is among a team of researchers whose federally funded research into cybersecurity issues with internet-connected automobiles has been recognized with the Golden Goose Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 

Golden Goose Award recipients demonstrate how scientific advances resulting from foundational research can help respond to national and global challenges, often in unforeseen ways. The award honors federally funded work that, according to AAAS, "may have been considered silly, odd or obscure when first conducted but has resulted in significant benefits to society." The award was established in 2012 to counter criticisms of wasteful government spending.

In 2009, Checkoway was a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego when Professor Stefan Savage approached him about working on an automotive computer security project. A collaboration between UC San Diego and the University of Washington (where, coincidentally, Checkoway earned his undergraduate degrees in mathematics and computer science) began investigating whether a vehicle’s computing systems could be hacked and how that would affect a driver's ability to control their car.

As one of the lead senior PhD students, Checkoway and the team purchased a pair of identical 2009 Chevy Impalas. Over the course of about two years, they demonstrated that they were able to remotely take over the computers in cars and control all of the functions that are under computer control. The team published a pair of landmark papers showing how these vehicles could have their mechanical functions (including the engine, lights, and brakes) overridden by a remote attacker via a range of digital pathways. 

"The first paper asked what capabilities an attacker would have if they were able to compromise one of the components in the car,” Checkoway says. “We connected to the cars' internal networks to examine what we could do once they were hacked. The second paper explored how someone could hack the car from afar." 

Both papers were published in the top computer security conferences. Checkoway notes that in the computer science world, conference publications are peer reviewed and have more prestige than journal publications. 

Their seminal research led automakers to rethink car safety concerns and to adopt a range of new security practices as standard procedures.

“The work had a lot of impact,” Checkoway says. “It prompted manufacturers to start considering car safety concerns.”

GM appointed a vice president of product security to lead a new division. The Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE), the standards body for the automotive industry, quickly issued the first automotive cybersecurity standards. Other car companies followed, as did the federal government. In 2012, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched a new project geared toward creating hacking-resistant, cyber-physical systems.

Checkoway’s current research focuses on the security of cyber-physical systems. “I have a long-term collaboration with colleagues at the University of Illinois, the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Washington studying the computer security of computers used in aviation. Two of my fellow award winners, Stefan Savage at UC San Diego and Karl Koscher at UW, are part of this collaboration.”

The other Golden Goose Award winners are Katalin Karikó (BioNTech) and Drew Weissman (University of Pennsylvania), for research and advancement of mRNA; and V. Craig Jordan (The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center) for pioneering the scientific principles behind a class of drugs called selective estrogen receptor modulators, or SERMs.

Checkoway says he is honored and humbled to receive the Golden Goose Award. “It's exciting to know that my work continues to have an impact 10 years later. I think the award illustrates the value of National Science Foundation funding, as this work would not have been possible without NSF support. My work builds on a body of prior research, much of it federally funded. I like to think that this award is recognizing the importance of continuing to fund basic scientific research.”

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