XXX Interceptor

The chief data scientist for Covenant Eyes, Dr. Michael Holm single-handedly transformed the battle against pornography addiction


After earning a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Michael Holm worked for the National Security Agency for three years before joining Covenant Eyes, a company that helps people avoid pornography by offering online activity monitoring software.

He was the right person for the right job at the right time.

When Michael Holm ’06 was hired by Covenant Eyes in 2014, neither he nor the company envisioned the impact he would make. Now, thanks to skills he learned at Northwestern and honed while earning a doctorate in mathematics, the internet is a safer place for those struggling with—or wanting to avoid—pornography.

“I joined the company with little vision of what I’d be doing,” Holm admits. “But in my interview, it was clear they valued what I could bring as a mathematician.”

Founded in 2000, Covenant Eyes was facing an existential crisis when it hired Holm as its chief data scientist. With the advent of widespread encryption, the rise of mobile apps, and the proliferation of different operating systems and devices, its text-based system for detecting pornography was becoming less and less effective.

Holm worked briefly on improving the existing system but soon began investigating whether it might be possible for a software program to identify pornography via images rather than text. Within months of his start at Covenant Eyes, convolutional neural networks (CNN) provided a monumental breakthrough in a computer’s ability to recognize and classify images.

“CNNs are machine-learning algorithms, meaning they are designed as blank brains with incredible capacities to learn,” Holm says.

On a computer, every image is a three-dimensional matrix of numbers. A CNN scans those matrices and learns the mathematical patterns that distinguish one type of image from another.

In his first two years with Covenant Eyes, Holm designed a custom CNN algorithm and used more than 2 million images to train the algorithm to identify the patterns contained in pornographic images. The impact was immediate and profound.

“Older image-based techniques were 75% accurate,” Holm recalls. “When I first implemented a CNN model on new high-end hardware I’d purchased, I was looking at 97% accuracy for the same problem. Over time, I was able to reach 99.8%.”

Having achieved success on Covenant Eyes’ internal equipment, Holm next adapted the software to run on user devices. “I spent over a year optimizing the model for size and speed, sacrificing as little accuracy as possible in the process.”

In March of 2019, Covenant Eyes released its Screen Accountability software to all 300,000 members. “The software sees the screen just as you see it,” Holm told The Christian Post. “It captures and analyzes the screen, then sends a report to the user’s ally.”

Holm’s algorithm work makes heavy use of linear algebra and calculus, both foundational skills built at Northwestern.

“Coming to NWC, I had a strong desire to be pushed,” he says, citing in particular the impact of Dr. Kim Jongerius, professor of mathematics. “She started evening sessions once a week focusing on challenge problems that might show up on national competition exams.”

Jongerius, likewise, has high praise for Holm. “Students like him don’t come along all the time. It was clear early on that he would do fine in grad school because not only was he very good at math, but he also was willing to work really hard at it.”

Holm was eager to apply that work ethic to his role at Covenant Eyes. Statistics are sobering: $13 billion is spent on pornography in the U.S. annually, and the estimated unique monthly visits to all porn sites outnumber visits to Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined.

According to a 2014 U.S. survey conducted by the Barna Group, 64% of self-identified Christian men and 15% of self-identified Christian women view pornography at least once a month, while 21% of Christian men and 2% of Christian women say they think they might be addicted to porn or aren’t sure if they are. More disturbingly, more than 90% of boys and 60% of girls are exposed to pornography before the age of 18.

“God has a good design for sexuality that is deeply perverted in our culture,” Holm says. “Knowing that Covenant Eyes’ mission is close to God’s heart makes it close to my heart.”

Five years ago, the company’s vice president of technology assured Holm that God had brought him to Covenant Eyes for a reason. Seeing the results of God’s perfect timing now, Holm whole-heartedly agrees.

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