NEW YORK (FOX5NY) - When a homemade pressure-cooker bomb exploded in a dumpster in the Chelsea section of Manhattan in mid-September, police officers, FBI agents, and bomb techs isolated the crime scene, interviewed witnesses, and collected and cataloged evidence to send to labs for analysis in hopes all that might lead them to the person who constructed and planted the device.
"In this case, we actually got pretty lucky," said Manny Gomez, MG Security Services president and former FBI special agent. He reminded us that night officers found a second bomb they succeeded in deactivating, giving investigators the supposed bomber's fingerprints he left all over that un-exploded second device.
"Now we have to remember that this individual had already been arrested a few years ago," he said.
So those same fingerprints lived in a government database. Once entered, the prints led investigators to a mug shot they passed to law enforcement leading to the alleged bomber's arrest barely a day later.
But even without fingerprints, video of the man leaving a duffel with bombs inside on that stretch of sidewalk could've given police that mug shot.
"That's not the future," Gomez said. "It's here and now."
"We have the ability to take a profile image and rotate that to frontal," said biometrics expert Allen Ganz. He demonstrated for us how existing software can identify individuals in a database in real-time sending alerts to mobile devices -- say, the work cell of every law enforcement officer in America as it IDs suspects.
Ganz scanned three faces in our newsroom belonging to individuals without criminal records, gave those faces names, and without any other information his computer found us and alerted Ganz of the sighting on his phone.
"We actually have the ability to not only work with existing cameras but even search citizen-uploaded video," he said.
Investigators can also use facial recognition after an event, letting algorithms comb through an ever-populating amount of video taken by everyone of everything.
"It's the biggest breakthrough in law enforcement, in criminology, since the fingerprint was discovered," Gomez said. "Again, it's not the future, it's the present."
While improvements in technology may have changed how we analyze evidence in the lab and how we search for and find terrorists after they've committed a crime, how we unpack the scene of a bombing -- like the one in Chelsea in mid-September -- still relies on a human bomb tech and his team.
"It's that bomb technician on his knees going through a pile," said Justin Kelley, MSA Security managing director and retired Connecticut state police officer, bomb tech, bomb squad commander, and Joint Terrorism Task force member. Kelley said working a bomb scene is a tedious task and a robot or computer cannot mimic it.
"Bombers have signatures and bombers use the same material time after time," he said.
To identify those signatures requires a human bomb tech.
"Whether it be a piece a tape, whether it be a battery-holder or a cell phone, everything is serialized," he said.
And while the bombs themselves really have not changed, "we've seen the same devices for decades now," Kelley said.
Kelley said the quality of training for those inspecting a crime scene has improved greatly, but so too has the availability and abundance of information for would-be bombers.
"The Internet has certainly enhanced the likelihood of someone creating a device," Kelley said.
"The problem is now: That's reactive," Gomez said. "We need to figure out a better way to be proactive and prevent the attack before it even happens. That's the real goal."