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Criminals are increasingly “going dark” to hide their tracks. They are using virtual private networks to mask their locations; deploying encryption techniques to obscure their messages and make their hard drives impenetrable; and posting on the so-called dark web, the vast underbelly of the internet, which is inaccessible to conventional browsers.

As the technologies lower people’s inhibitions, online groups are sharing images of younger children and more extreme forms of abuse.

“Historically, you would never have gone to a black market shop and asked, ‘I want real hard-core with 3-year-olds,’” said Yolanda Lippert, a prosecutor in Illinois who leads a team investigating online child abuse. “But now you can sit seemingly secure on your device searching for this stuff, trading for it.”

Congress passed a landmark law in 2008 that foresaw many of today’s problems, but The Times found that the federal government had not fulfilled major aspects of the legislation. Annual funding for state and regional investigations was authorized at $60 million, but only about half of that is regularly approved.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a sponsor of the law’s reauthorization, said there was “no adequate or logical explanation and no excuse” for why more money was not allocated. Even $60 million a year, he said, would now be “vastly inadequate.”

Another cornerstone of the law, biennial strategy reports by the Justice Department, was mostly ignored. And although a senior executive-level official was to oversee the federal response at the Justice Department, that has not happened.

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The Justice Department’s coordinator for child exploitation prevention, Stacie B. Harris, said she could not explain the poor record. A spokeswoman for the department, citing limited resources, said the reports would now be written every four years beginning in 2020.

With so many reports of the images coming their way, police departments across the country are besieged. Some have managed their workload by focusing efforts on imagery depicting the youngest, most vulnerable victims.

“We go home and think, ‘Good grief, the fact that we have to prioritize by age is just really disturbing,’” said Detective Paula Meares, who has investigated child sex crimes for more than 10 years at the Los Angeles Police Department.

About one of every 10 agents in Homeland Security’s investigative section is assigned to child sexual exploitation cases, officials said, a clear indication of how big the problem is.

“We could double our numbers and still be getting crushed,” said Jonathan Hendrix, a Homeland Security agent who investigates cases in Nashville.

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