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How a former NSA mathematician changed the way Covenant Eyes monitors porn use

How a former NSA mathematician changed the way Covenant Eyes monitors porn use

Covenant Eyes Chief Data Scientist Michael Holm (R) poses for a picture after being presented with the Plagioclase Award from Covenant Eyes President Ron DeHaas (L) at the 2018 Covenant Eyes Christmas party in Owosso, Michigan. Holm was honored for his contributions toward Covenant Eyes' Screen Accountability software. | Covenant Eyes

The pornography accountability service Covenant Eyes released this year a new software principally designed by a former National Security Agency data scientist that makes it nearly impossible for users to take advantage of loopholes in order to view pornography undetected. 

As hundreds of thousands of people have used Covenant Eyes to hold themselves accountable since the company’s founding in 2000, the organization switched its entire offering over to its new “Screen Accountability” software in March.

The new software is billed as a “revolutionary screen monitoring technology” that is a “radical new approach to accountability” and vastly more effective than the company’s old system, which relied on text-based detection through web browsers. 

As the way people use the internet is constantly changing, the company's new detection software uses an image-based detection system that can detect pornographic images and videos regardless of their source, online or offline: an encrypted web browser, a mobile app, an external flash drive or even a Microsoft Word document. 

“The software sees the screen just as you see it,” Covenant Eyes Chief Data Scientist Michael Holm told The Christian Post in a recent interview. “The battleground has moved from the heavily-hampered world of network text-parsing right up to the visual input to your eye." 

Holm started working for Covenant Eyes in 2014 after serving three years as an applied research mathematician for the NSA, a federal agency headquartered in Maryland.

Holm began working for the NSA in 2011 after earning a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Nebraska. He said he desired to be part of a mission bigger than himself and to get a start in the competitive industry. He found his work at the NSA to be “purposeful and valuable."

However, desiring to move his family back to the Midwest where most of his extended family lives, Holm began investigating new job opportunities about three years into his employment with the federal intelligence agency. 

He explained that he was initially offered and came close to accepting a position as a
data scientist for the multinational corporation Walmart, which has over 11,000 stores
worldwide.

But the very weekend that Holm intended to accept the job offer, the Walmart recruiter happened to be away at a conference, and during this time, Holm was informed by his wife about a job opening at the Michigan-based Covenant Eyes.

Holm, who grew up in a Christian household, was loosely familiar with Covenant Eyes at the time.

“During the interview, I was greatly impressed with the mission of the company, and it seemed clear beyond any doubt that this was where I belonged,” Holm explained. “There is great evil behind the world of pornography and I was blessed to use God’s gifts to me in a mission close to God’s heart: providing effective tools for people seeking freedom from the destructive power of pornography. So, I accepted the job fairly-well on the spot and ended up turning Walmart down.”

Holm was initially hired by Covenant Eyes as a data scientist at the end of 2014 and
was tasked to improve the existing text-based system. However, in his first six months, he spent time investigating the possibility of using an image-based system to detect pornography and eventually came to the conclusion that it could be done. 

“With fast-growing encryption in the digital marketplace, the increased use of apps over browsers and the great diversity of operating systems and platforms, the text-based system was quickly becoming obsolete,” Holm explained. “And, therefore, the company would not have been able to continue that way very long.”

“Image-based pornography detection was a huge conceptual change for Covenant Eyes at the time. And while I didn't know it then, God had put me in that place at that time for a purpose higher than myself, just as I had previously desired and prayed, but equally outside of my personal design or specific anticipation," he continued. “And I can’t take credit for what God was accomplishing during that time – in mid-2015 the technology was ripe and just beginning to be capable of the tasks that we needed it to perform.”

For two years, Holm said, he worked alone on the project developing and optimizing mathematical machine-learning models capable of distinguishing pornographic from nonpornographic images.

In a sense, an image is just data. More precisely, an image may be thought of as a highly-structured, three-dimensional blob of numbers between zero and 255,” Holm explained. “And so, my job was to develop an algorithm to accurately and consistently distinguish those three-dimensional number-blobs depicting pornography from those three-dimensional number-blobs depicting nonpornography. At its core, this is a mathematical optimization problem in a high dimensional feature space, making heavy use of both linear algebra and calculus, and with today’s compute power, this task can be done well."

As the capability matured and showed a track record of success, Covenant Eyes began to build around the project. 

Several years later with “Screen Accountability” now fully implemented, Holm warns users trying to skirt the system that there is “very little avenue to get around the new approach compared to what we had before.”

“Those who used to have tricks up their sleeves to get around the software, they will no longer work,” he stressed. “It's a totally different ballgame. And very few, if any loopholes."

Holm hopes the development will serve well the millions of current and future Covenant Eyes users pursuing freedom from pornography.

On the basis of the artificial intelligence work that Holm has done for Covenant Eyes, a daughter business affiliated with Covenant Eyes has been launched. 

The name of the business is Picnix with a mission to provide similar AI-driven solutions for other industries. 

For example, over the last two years, Picnix has developed a state-of-the-art machine-learning-based system to detect new oil and gas reservoirs using regional 3D-seismic data. To date, the company has successfully identified oil and gas in Michigan and Texas.

“We now have a small but growing team of data scientists and we continue to support the original work at Covenant Eyes even while developing these other new areas. We're sister companies,” he said, “and I am fully committed to the success of both companies right now." 

Having met his wife Hannah in college, the couple now has six children, three of whom
were born in Michigan, where Holm is also blessed to pursue a childhood dream
of taking part in his family’s farming heritage.

Covenant Eyes Chief Data Scientist Michael Holm touches a calf while on his farm land in Michigan | Courtesy of Michael Holm

"I've had farming in my family for several generations and now have the opportunity to take part in that heritage by raising my family with a variety of endeavors like chickens for eggs and cows for milk," he said.

"With such great responsibility and blessing over the past five years, I have been greatly stretched, very often bumping into the awareness of my own limits and faults. I thank God greatly for His grace and higher purpose in all things, whether through me, in me or fully in spite of me.”

Michael Holm and his wife, Hannah, pose for a family photo with their six children in 2018. | Courtesy of Michael Holm

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