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One potential benefit of online surveys is the use of “conditional branching.” In conventional paper and pencil surveys, one question might ask if the respondent has shopped for a new car during the last eight months. If the respondent answers “no,” he or she will be asked to skip ahead several questions—., going straight to question 17 instead of proceeding to number 9. If the respondent answered “yes,” he or she would be instructed to go to the next question which, along with the next several ones, would address issues related to this shopping experience. Conditional branching allows the computer to skip directly to the appropriate question. If a respondent is asked which brands he or she considered, it is also possible to customize brand comparison questions to those listed. Suppose, for example, that the respondent considered Ford, Toyota, and Hyundai, it would be possible to ask the subject questions about his or her view of the relative quality of each respective pair—in this case, Ford vs. Toyota, Ford vs. Hyundai, and Toyota vs. Hyundai.
In situations in which full identifiers or partial identifiers are available but may not be released or transmitted, a deterministic linkage on encrypted identifiers may be employed. Quantin and colleagues 33 , 46 – 47 have developed procedures for encrypting identifiers using cryptographic hash functions so identifiers needed for linkage can be released directly to researchers without compromising patient confidentiality. A cryptographic hash function, such as the Secure Hash Algorithm version 2 (SHA-2), released by the National Security Agency and published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is a deterministic procedure that takes input and returns an output that was intentionally changed by an algorithm. Due to its deterministic attributes and the inability to reverse-engineer a hashed value, it has been widely adopted for security applications and procedures. Quantin’s research shows that records can successfully be linked via deterministic algorithms using identifiers encrypted before release. 46 , 85 – 86 It should be noted, however, that record pairs matched on encrypted identifiers cannot be manually reviewed or validated.