Fact-checking Bachmann

Rep. Michele Bachmann overreached today when she delivered her latest salvo against the U.S. census. Bachmann proposed allowing people the option not to answer questions on the census.

ASSERTION: “Beginning last weekend, the Pentagon was broken into, its computers, as well as Homeland Security’s computers, and North Korea may be the culprit,” she said. “What we know is that the government’s computer systems are not hacker proof.”

FACT: According to the Associated Press, “Treasury Department and Federal Trade Commission Web sites were knocked out by the blizzard of digital requests, while others such as the Pentagon and the White House were able to fend it off with little disruption.” No one has been “hacked” in this cyberattack from — reportedly — North Korea. Instead, access to a computer service is blocked through “denial of service” attacks. No information actually is pried from a targeted computer. And no computer was “broken into.”

As the AP report characterized it:

Denial of service attacks against Web sites are not uncommon, and are usually caused when sites are deluged with Internet traffic so as to effectively take them off-line. Mounting such an attack can be relatively easy using widely available hacking programs, and they can be made far more serious if hackers infect and use thousands of computers tied together into “botnets.”

ASSERTION: “And so American’s private information, including their home telephone numbers…”

FACT: But you can get people’s home telephone numbers from a telephone book.

ASSERTION: “.. and very private information about their personal lives could be subject to a hacker.”

FACT: True, a computer could be hacked into. But that doesn’t stop Bachmann from accepting donations on her Web site that require you to reveal your credit card number, your occupation, your address and your email address. One has to calculate the risks and evaluate the return.

A couple of weeks ago, Bachmann said the census data might be used to round Americans up, making a connection to Japanese internment in World War II.

If Bachmann is worried about what the government might do, it’s not as if it hasn’t given some reason to be. In 2004, the Electronic Privacy Information Center said it obtained documents to show that data “on people who identified themselves on the 2000 census as being of Arab ancestry” had been given to the Department of Homeland Security. But the DHS said that was to figure out what language to use on signs at airports.

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I have a confession to make. I can’t remember ever filling out a census form. I can’t remember anyone coming to the door and asking me questions. A young man stopped by a month or so ago to confirm that my address is correct, apparently to be sure I didn’t put four large numbers on the post by the garage to fool the Census people.

“I know for my family the only question we will be answering is how many people are in our home,” Rep. Bachmann told the Washington Times last month. “We won’t be answering any information beyond that, because the Constitution doesn’t require any information beyond that.”

That, of course, is wrong, according to Census officials. It also ignores the reality that the Constitution provides a framework for laws. There’s nothing in the Constitution, for example, about a 55 mph speed limit, but my argument fell on deaf ears in White Bear Lake not long ago.

What’s the point of the census? Let’s look at a couple of the questions.

Question: How old are you?

Reason for asking: The voting age population census could help Minnesota lawmakers decide, for example, which House district could be eliminated if, as reported, the state loses a congressional seat.

Question: Last week did this person work for either pay or profit?

Reason for asking: Helps to identify the impact of immigration and job markets, according to the Census Bureau. It’s an issue that’s been important to some representatives like Bachmann and could provide facts to back up assertions, should that ever comes back into style in Washington.

None of this is new. The census people have been making this point for decades:

Many of the questions claimed as “personal” are actually on the American Community Survey, rather than the Census short form that most people will get.

Bachmann is making the claim that government intrusion by way of the Census is an expanding universe. But there’s evidence that the opposite is true. Past census records, for example, reveal that Clark Haley of Anoka County got $18 a month in a government pension for having a “diseased lung” in 1869. George Fairbanks, also of Anoka County, got $4 a month for chronic diarrhea.

Let the record show, there are no questions planned in the ’10 Census about diarrhea.