China has overtaken the US as the major distributor of spy and malware, the latest trend report from Webroot has claimed.

The company used its “Phileas” malware tracking system to reckon China’s proportion of global spyware as being 42 percent for the first quarter of 2006, with the US a distant second at 17 percent. This reverses the figures for Q4 of 2005, where the US was ahead.

If accurate, the figures are a strong indication that 2006 will be the year that China, as long predicted, overtakes the US as the world’s number one malware producer. Last month, Sophos rated China as now only a fraction behind the US in the bellweather spam production league.

The Netherlands, France and Spain come next with a combined total of 12.5 percent of malware, but no one country comes close to two main offenders.

Other statistics include the news that the cumulative figure for malware-distribution sites has risen from 400,000 in 2005 to 427,000 in the first quarter of this year.

The report notes that phishing attacks have made a comeback, after a period of relative stability, something the company attributes to the easier availability of Trojan source code on the Internet.

Keyloggers are also advancing, with new techniques such as kernel-level driver designs and rootkits to the fore. More and more of these programs are setting out to disrupt anti-malware software as part of their attempt to avoid detection. The average piece of malware now comes in ten different variants.

Explanations for China’s increasing prominence in malware vary. Some have said that the country is favoured as a relay point for attacks that originate elsewhere thanks to its lax controls and legislation. So the statistsics don’t necessarily mean that China is the world’s largest producer of malware, only its new distribution hub.

Webroot points to legislation as being the deciding factor.

“One reason for China’s hosting growth could be due to impending anti-spyware legislation in the United States driving spyware writers to less monitored and regulated countries,” the report says.