Using Security Questions to Link Participants in Longitudinal Data Collection

Shu Xu, Anthea Chan, Michael F. Lorber, Justin P. Chase

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Anonymous data collection systems are often necessary when assessing sensitive behaviors but can pose challenges to researchers seeking to link participants over time. To assist researchers in anonymously linking participants, we outlined and tested a novel security question linking (security question linking; SEEK) method. The SEEK method includes four steps: (1) data management and standardization, (2) many-to-many matching, (3) fuzzy matching, and (4) rematching and verification. The method is demonstrated in SAS with two samples from a longitudinal study of adolescent dating violence. After an initial assessment during a laboratory visit, participants were asked to complete an online assessment either (a) once, 3 months later (Sample 1, n = 60), or (b) three times at 1-month intervals (Sample 2, n = 140). Demographics, eye color, and responses to nine security questions were used as key variables to link responses from the laboratory and online follow-up assessments. The rates of matched cases were 100% in Sample 1 and from 94.3 to 98.3% in Sample 2. To quantify the confidence in the data quality of successfully matched pairs, we reported the means and standard deviations of the number of matched security questions. In addition, we reported the rank order and counts of the mismatched components in key variables. Results indicate that the SEEK method provides a feasible and reliable solution to link responses in longitudinal studies with sensitive questions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)194-202
Number of pages9
JournalPrevention Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2020


  • Linking
  • Longitudinal studies
  • Online studies
  • SEEK
  • Security questions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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