Storytellers: Meet MSU Denver's hotshot hacker

9NEWS @ 9. 12/18/2018

DENVER - Like a typical hacker, Stephen Chavez likes rave parties, lives on his computer and likes to buck the system.

Unlike a typical hacker, Chavez has something called Schizencephaly.

"It is an extremely rare brain condition that at the time I was born, not much was known about it," Chavez said through a text to speech program on his laptop computer.

He can't talk. He can't walk. He has poor motor skills, but he can think.

"But, unfortunately, I only have one fully working arm to do everything with," Chavez said. "This can cause unnecessary headaches for me. I'm very outgoing."

Chavez is a graduating senior at Metropolitan State University of Denver. When he's not attending classes studying computer science and math, he works within the school's cyber defense team supervised by Chief Information Security Officer Mike Hart.

"Stephen is unique in my experience," Hart said. "After a certain amount of time, his abilities or disabilities don't become an issue anymore."

But, as Chavez made his way through campus, he wanted to do what most people can do -- talk while on the go. He can't type into his text to speech program while driving his power wheelchair. So, he decided to do what hackers do.

"I wanted to make my chair self-autonomous," Chavez said.

He talked to his computer science professor Steve Beaty about an idea to hack into the software operating his wheelchair.

"I thought it was an excellent idea," Beaty said. "It was novel and it was something that other people haven't thought of up to this point."

Chavez wanted to be able to worry more about his words than where he was going.

"I had the idea of making my chair follow people by using their phone as Bluetooth beacon," Chavez said.

He created a system to take over his power wheelchair using a small computer hooked up to his chair.

"I was able to control my chair from any device I wanted wherever I wanted," Chavez said.

Devices such as video game controllers, cell phones, laptops, or tablets can run his chair wirelessly, through Bluetooth, wi-fi, or even through a 4G cell phone network.

"We can now connect (wheelchairs) for example to GPS devices and Bluetooth devices and all these other sorts of things that can help them live their lives more fully and more simply," Beaty said.

What Chavez discovered has a two-fold effect, Hart says.

"Stephen is good at what he does," Hart said. "Because this is a tool that's very important to him, he researching it for his benefit. But, he's also finding ways to keep others from exploiting it for their benefit."

Chavez wants to give people who use power wheelchairs more freedom.

"I'm allowing people to also programs special settings within their chairs as well," Chavez said.

Not only can his work help people have more say on speed and directional controls of their chairs, but Chavez is also revealing a potential hole in the cyber security of wheel chairs and other medical devices that operate on similar software. He believes he's also drawing attention to potential problems with software used within cars.

"It's concerning," Hart said. "I'm glad it's a good guy doing this sort of hacking and not something he's finding out cause he's a victim."

Because of his work, now the man who cannot talk is being asked to speak all around the world.

"I received multiple invitations to speak at events," Chavez said. "I am now able to talk about medical device hacking."

In October, Chavez spoke in China after winning an international award for hacking. He presented at a tech conference in Las Vegas and he was featured in Forbes magazine all before his graduation in December.

"He does amaze you. He's an amazing man, There's no question about it," Beaty said.

After MSU Denver, Chavez says he already has multiple job offers and other opportunities to speak at conferences around the world focused on how to keep wheelchairs, medical devices, and cars more secure from potential hacking.

"I hope that others can see the projects he's worked on and the successes he's had and overlook what might be considered barriers," Hart said.

Chavez has several barriers like his inability to walk or speak or type quickly with his one good hand. But, he will not let any of that stop him from taking over the cyber world.

"I don't see my disability preventing me from doing anything I plan to do in the future," Chavez said.

Copyright 2016 KUSA


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