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Hack to the Future: Experts Make 2016 Cybersecurity Predictions

The homepage of the Ashley Madison website is displayed on an iPad, in this photo illustration taken in Ottawa, Canada July 21, 2015. Cris Wattie / Reuters

Hackers had a busy 2015, breaking into everything from the Ashley Madison database to CIA Director John Brennan's AOL account.

This year, more than 178 million records on Americans were exposed in cyberattacks, according to the Identity Theft Research Center. The worst of them included the breach of the Office of Personnel Management, which exposed the personal information of 21.5 million people.

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Even kids weren't safe. When electronic toymaker VTech was hacked in early December, 6.4 million children's profiles were compromised.

Related: Your Data at Risk: 2015 Was a Year Full of Memorable Hacks

Many experts don't believe 2016 will be any better. So what should the public be worried about in the coming year?

The Internet of Hackable Things

Everything from smart fridges to connected Barbies to the Apple Watch found their way into American homes in 2015. That trend should continue in 2016 — something hackers will probably exploit, according to several experts.

"A new frontier of data breach issues is on the horizon," Lane Thames, a security researcher for Tripwire, told NBC News. "It is a result of the growing number of devices that belong to the Internet of Things, a.k.a. the IoT."

While the emergence of new smart products might be exciting, Thames said, "very few of these devices are designed and developed with cybersecurity and data privacy in mind. Often, a skilled hacker can break into a new IoT device within a matter of days, if not hours."

Someone hacking into a car or home appliance is scary enough. But the Internet of Things is becoming a vital part of U.S. hospitals, a problem because the healthcare industry already faces 340 percent more cyberattacks than the average industry, according to a report from Raytheon and Websense Security Labs.

Related: Cool or Creepy? High-Tech 'Hello Barbie' Has Conversations With Kids

Fear of "false positives and delays" for patients means that 75 percent of hospital network traffic goes unmonitored, the report said, putting connected devices with access to sensitive patient information at risk.

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Ransomware

Security firm Trend Micro dubbed 2016 the "year of online extortion." Ransomware infects a computer, and then threatens to lock a user out forever or delete data if the user doesn't pay up.

There will be more of that, Trend Micro said in a recent report. But in the wake of the Ashley Madison hack, where members were outed as possible philanderers, the blackmail could be even worse.

Related: Ransomware Takes Your Computer Hostage: Here is How to Defend Against It

"Cyber extortionists will devise new ways to target its victim's psyche to make each attack personal," predicted Trend Micro.

"Reputation is everything, and threats that can ruin an individual's or a business' reputation will prove to be effective and — more importantly — lucrative."

Even more terrifying, the threat of ransomware and the growing Internet of Things could converge, according to Kaspersky Lab, "begging the question, how much would you be willing to pay to regain access to your TV programming? Your fridge? Your car?"

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Rise of hacktivism

Greed isn't the only thing motivating hackers. In 2015, Anonymous went after ISIS and the Ku Klux Klan.

"Organizations need to realize that financial gain is no longer the only or even the biggest driver of some of their adversaries," Amit Yoran, president of security firm RSA, told NBC News in an email.

While Anonymous might grab the headlines, lone hackers with muddled motivations will be the bigger threat in 2016, predicted McAfee Labs in a recently published report. The people who hacked Ashley Madison and VTech both claimed they were simply exposing poor security practices.

Over the next year, McAfee Labs says to expect "attacks that appear to be inspired by hacktivism but actually have very different, hard-to-determine motives."

Hackers don't need advanced skills or lots of money to cause chaos these days, the McAfee Labs report said, calling modern hacktivism "nothing more than a case of copy and paste." That means any kid with an ax to grind and moderate computer skills could take up the mantle of "hacktivism" and cause the next big security breach.

The government gets involved

There is no shortage of private security firms and experts promising to prevent cyberattacks. But 2016 could be the year Uncle Sam takes a stand against hackers — for better or for worse.

"As international cyber threats increase and cyber warfare tactics are increasingly used by America's high profile enemies — ISIS, North Korea, Iran — the pressure to do something at the federal level will provide politicians an attractive issue in an election year," Jeff Hill, channel marketing manager for STEALTHbits Technologies, told NBC News.

Expect new legislation meant to protect sensitive information, Hill said, as well as the possibility that President Barack Obama could appoint something like a "cyber security czar to coordinate efforts to combat national security and corporate espionage-driven attacks."

Not only will the government feel pressure to prevent attacks, it will also need to find ways to help the millions of victims of security breaches — some of whom never learn that their information was exposed.

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"With breaches on the rise at all levels from government to the private sector we will see a push for more legislation dealing with reporting and protections," Lamar Bailey, research director for Tripwire's vulnerability and exposures research team, told NBC News.

After as many as 80 million records were compromised in the Anthem breach, the insurer offered free credit monitoring to catch fraud. That isn't enough, Bailey said.

"Credit monitoring is not sufficient for protecting victims of a breach — it is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound," Bailey told NBC News, predicting that the government could require more from hacked companies in 2016.

Apple at risk?

In the past, many assumed that Apple products were safer from cyberattacks than Windows and Android products. But as Apple's popularity grows — it currently owns 13.5 percent and 7.5 percent of the smartphone and PC markets, respectively, according to market research firm IDC — so too could the company's visibility as a target.

"A rising number of threat actors have begun developing specific malware designed to infect devices running Mac OS X or iOS," wrote Symantec on its website, noting that "Apple-related malware infections" have spiked in the last 18 months.

"Should Apple's popularity continue to grow, it seems likely that these trends will continue in 2016," said Symantec. "Apple users should not be complacent about security and change their perception that Apple devices are 'free from malware.'"

As always, there are steps that people can take to protect themselves, from always updating their software to coming up with a nearly unbreakable password (don't worry, there is an 11-year-old girl who can help you with that).

In 2016, IDC expects that more than 3.2 billion people will have access to the Internet. That is a lot of potential hackers and targets, so don't expect the number of security breaches to come down anytime soon.