Rep. Mike Johnson, the Speaker of the House, uses an anti-porn app called Covenant Eyes.
Courts have ordered people charged with child pornography-related crimes to install the app.
But Covenant Eyes' CEO says the app shouldn't be used in a legal setting.
The app Speaker of the House Mike Johnson uses to ensure he and his teenage son don't look at porn appears to have a devoted following among some federal probation officers.
Insider found eight instances across four states in which courts ordered or considered ordering people who had been charged with child pornography-related crimes to install the app, Covenant Eyes, as a condition of probation or pretrial release.
Johnson lauded Covenant Eyes at a Christian convention last year, according to a clip of the event shared on social media. The app enables "accountability" between him and his son over any porn use, he said.
Covenant Eyes monitors a device's web traffic, and takes screenshots at least once a minute, compiling that information into a report that it sends to the user's chosen "accountability partner."
Courts appear to have embraced it as a way to monitor the online activity of people who have been convicted of or are awaiting trial for child pornography charges.
That's despite the fact that Covenant Eyes shouldn't be used in a legal setting, its CEO Ron DeHaas told Insider.
Nevertheless, courts have repeatedly done exactly what Covenant Eyes advises against.
Courts have been using the app for at least 15 years
Courts have been forcing people to download Covenant Eyes at least since at least 2007, Insider found in a review of federal court filings. Those same documents, though, also make clear how easy it is to circumvent the app.
One Eastern Washington man who had been convicted of receiving child pornography was forced to download Covenant Eyes to comply with a condition of his probation that barred him from viewing any porn. His probation officer later found "approximately 100 pornographic images" on his phone. Another man in Ohio who had been forced to install Covenant Eyes on his personal devices simply used his girlfriend's computer to look at porn. (Her mom called his probation officer to complain.)
And in another case, a court in Tennessee declined the request of a man who had pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography to be allowed to use the internet while on probation. Even if he installed Covenant Eyes on every computer he regularly accessed, the court said, the app is too easy to evade.
Reality TV star Josh Duggar, for instance, bypassed Covenant Eyes – which he'd been using before his arrest – to download child porn on the dark web.
On Apple devices, Covenant Eyes isn't allowed to take random screenshots of anything except the user's activity in Safari or the Covenant Eyes app itself because Apple doesn't "allow any app to run device-wide in the background," DeHaas said. (Covenant Eyes has fewer restrictions on Android and Windows devices.) Apple did not respond to a request for comment.
The app's shortcomings have made it a subject of criticism. Wired reported earlier this year that state courts and probation departments have also made use of the tool, and in at least one case in Indiana put a man behind bars because a porn website refreshed in the background of one of his or his family member's devices.
Insider's search was limited to federal court records, but Wired reported that Colorado spending records show that the judicial branch has made 60 purchases of Covenant Eyes since 2017 and that Ohio, Washington, and Montana have used it each at least once.
Churches also buy subscriptions to the app in bulk
Though DeHaas told Insider that the app isn't rooted in "any aspect of faith," the app has gained a strong foothold in some corners of Christian life. A review of the app's website shows that Covenant Eyes explicitly markets itself to a Christian audience – one section of the site directed at church leaders warns that "porn is a problem in your church." The app's name, DeHaas said, is taken from a Bible verse about denying lustful impulses.
Some large Christian institutions appear to have purchased Covenant Eyes subscriptions in bulk. Students at Penn View Bible Institute, a bible college in Pennsylvania, "are provided Covenant Eyes software for accountability for their Internet use," according to a 2021 report the school filed with a Christian higher ed accreditation group. "At least two school staff personnel are required as accountability partners for each student." Penn View did not respond to a request for comment.
When it filed for bankruptcy in 2020, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans owed $22,000 to Covenant Eyes, court documents show. At $17 per month, the archdiocese could have been paying for hundreds of accounts.
"The Archdiocese of New Orleans has used Covenant Eyes as a resource for parents in talking to their children about the dangers of online pornography," Sarah McDonald, the archdiocese's director of communications, told Insider in an email.
Security concerns and ethical quandaries
Covenant Eyes touts its security measures, marketing itself as "100% Confidential."
"We know this is a sensitive matter," Covenant Eyes writes on its website. "Don't worry, the only people who will know are the people you invite to walk this journey with you."
According to Covenant Eyes, the app analyzes screenshots on the device, using porn-detecting artificial intelligence to detect when a user could have been looking at something explicit. It blurs the images before including them in the accountability reports, then deletes them after 30 days. It also captures high-level information about which websites a user has accessed, and stores data that could indicate a user had accessed a porn-related site.
Still, security concerns remain, experts told Insider.
"What if the data are being stolen or leaked?" asked Yotam Ophir, a professor who studies misinformation and extremism at the University of Buffalo. It's "frightening," Ophir said, that "a person so high in the chain of command is allowing his computer or phone information to be constantly scraped and stored somewhere."
DeHaas declined to tell Insider where Covenant Eyes stores user's data, saying that information was "proprietary." He also declined to share how Covenant Eyes trained its AI algorithm, saying that was also "proprietary."
The software's creator, former NSA mathematician Michael Holm, told a Christian college magazine in 2019 that he trained the algorithm on a database of two million images.
Holm didn't describe the image set in the article, and Insider's attempts to contact him were unsuccessful, in part because Holm set his phone to block incoming calls and texts. But there have been serious issues in the past with image sets like these.
In 2019, The Register found that a widely used dataset for training artificial intelligence systems included inappropriate and unethically sourced images. The image collection contained photos of naked children, families, college students, and adult entertainers that were scraped from the internet without consent.
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