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The whole body imager takes a picture of everything under a traveler's clothing.

Before your next flight from Tampa International Airport, you might end up striking poses in what looks like a phone booth big enough for basketball behemoth Shaquille O'Neal.

Why? So a federal officer can see a picture of what's under your clothes and look for hidden bombs or weapons. Starting next Friday, the Transportation Security Administration will begin screening local air travelers with its newest tool: the whole-body imager.

Civil libertarians call the process an electronic strip search. TSA officials counter that they've gone to great lengths to protect people's privacy. You can decline the screening, which uses electromagnetic energy to create an image. But that will subject you to a patdown search.

Sound confusing? Here are answers to some common questions:

Who do officers pick for screening?

Anyone in a line that leads to a scanner when no one's already inside the imager portal. Anyone in those lines who sets off the metal detector at the checkpoint. Also travelers preselected for extra attention, such as those on watch lists or who buy last-minute tickets, and anyone who passes through metal detectors when no one's already inside the imager portal.

What's the procedure?

Step inside, stand on a set of footprints and lift your hands over your head while two antennas spin around. Turn and step on two other footprints while holding your arms out, palms down, for a second scan. Step outside and wait for the officer in another room to check your picture. The whole process should take 30 to 40 seconds.

How does it work?

Two antennas rotate around the body projecting beams of radio frequency waves. The reflections create a three-dimensional image.

Who sees my picture?

Only the officer checking for dangerous items, says the TSA. Your image goes through a wire encased in metal sheathing to a computer in another room. The officer can't see you.

Your picture is deleted after inspection and can't be transmitted or stored. Cell phones, cameras and video electronics are prohibited in the room. Critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union doubt the TSA will be able to prevent rogue officers from copying and distributing images.

What does the picture look like?

That depends. In a demonstration Thursday, the image that resembles an X-ray or sonogram showed a woman in underwear. It's possible to see genitalia and breasts in other images released by the TSA. Faces are blurred out.

Is it safe?

Electromagnetic energy used to create an image that is less than a 10,000th that of a cell phone, says the TSA. Dr. Richard Morin of Jacksonville, chairman of the safety committee for the American College of Radiology, says the power is too low to damage cells. "I'd judge there are no untoward biological effects," he says. Kids younger than 12 years old won't be sent through the machine.

What if I refuse the scanning and the patdown search?

You won't be allowed to fly, and could be subjected to more scrutiny if officers don't believe have an "innocent" reason for refusing, says Gary Milano, federal security director for the Tampa Bay area.

Steve Huettel can be reached at or (813) 226-3384.