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Better documentation of the ADB protocol, specifically for USB uses.

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ADB Protocol Documentation

ADB (Android Debug Bridge) and its protocol is what your computer uses to communicate with Android devices. The protocol itself is an application layer protocol, which can sit inside TCP or USB. The AOSP (Android Open Source Project) documentation for the protocol and processes that use it can be found in their ADB code repository:

The issue with the documentation provided by the AOSP is that it's severely lacking in details around the implementation of the protocol. These details are things anyone familiar with common communication protocols would expect to see in the documentation of a protocol.

For example: The documentation regarding making a connection to the device consists of:

Both sides send a CONNECT message when the connection between them is established. Until a CONNECT message is received no other messages may be sent. Any messages received before a CONNECT message MUST be ignored.

This is not enough information for us to perform the handshake required to connect to a device. From this it sounds like each side just sends CONNECT endlessly until it receives a CONNECT from the other side. This is not at all how the actual handshake takes place.

Hopefully this document will clear up ambiguous documentation and details regarding the implementation of the ADB protocol for those who are interested. The packet capture I refer to that was captured during a connection sequence using Googles ADB implementation is in this repo under adbCapture.pcapng.

My aim is for this document to eventually be a suitable replacement for other documentation out there about the ADB protocol

NOTE: The majority of the information presented is for use of the ADB protocol with USB. If you have information about it's use with TCP please submit a pull request. :smile:


I like protocols, and reverse engineering ADB was a lot of fun. My comments are representations of my immediate reactions to certain aspects of ADB. I'm sure there were actual rational decisions behind most of the things I poke fun at in this doc.

Packet Format

ADB packets:

unsigned command; /* command identifier constant /
unsigned arg1; /
first argument /
unsigned arg2; /
second argument /
unsigned data_length; /
length of payload (0 is allowed) /
unsigned data_crc32; /
crc32 of data payload /
unsigned magic; /
command ^ 0xffffffff */

Having different possible meanings for the value of arg1 and arg2 based on what type of command we're sending can be confusing. It also means that any error messages are passed back as strings and we would have to parse strings in order to react to those errors.

But where is the data you ask?

ADB over USB expects to receive an ADB packet with the fields listed above, followed by another USB packet with any data payload associated with that ADB packet. Again, there is no mention of this in any of the AOSP's ADB documentation.

Since the CONNECT message is supposed to have a format of CONNECT(version, maxdata, "system-identity-string"), you'd think it's safe to assume that since the packet has the data_length and data_crc32, that you can just append the actual data to the end of your node buffer / C array.
But no, you can't. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Keep in mind that when you're sending packets in ADB, most fields need to be written in little endian byte order as well as read back from the device in little endian. This can be confusing initially if you're looking at packet capture hex dumps to determine the sequence of some ADB command.

NOTE: You might be able to do the whole "append data to the end of the packet as usual" thing if you're using the ADB protocol over TCP. As an example, Andrey seems to be able to do this just fine over TCP.

Packet Captures

To prove to you that I'm not lying here's some hexdumps of the packet capture I did to actually figure out how this thing works.

First, the whole packet + data structure that totally makes sense and should work: adb
Here you can see both the CNXN command as well as the host:: string for the "system-identity" portion of our connection request. But when you send this you never get a response from the device you sent to.

Here's what the AOSP's own implementation of ADB does:

  1. The CNXN command
    Notice that the 8 bytes are the same as the bytes previous to the host:: bytes in the last hex dump. This is from the data_length and data_crc32 fields being set based on wanting to send host:: as our data.
  2. The host:: system-identity string host
    ^ there's our actual data payload. So you have to send twice for every command.

To go from a state of no connection established to you have an adb shell into your device is about 40 USB packets. Efficiency :thumbsup:


Most protocols that are connection oriented have a handshake and actual documentation of their handshake process, such as TCP.
Unfortunately ADB does not.

But really, are you surprised?

According to the documentation in that wonderful protocol.txt file:

Both sides send a CONNECT message when the connection between them is established. Until a CONNECT message is received no other messages may be sent. Any messages received before a CONNECT message MUST be ignored.

That's really useful, it's clear who needs to initiate the connection by sending a CONNECT message first right? It's also clear that the device's response to our CONNECT message is going to be an AUTH message if the device is running Android 4.4 or higher, because that's clearly documented as part of the protocol. :angry:

So the actual handshake to get connected to a device, so you're in a state where you could run adb shell if you wanted, is as follows:

  1. We send a CONNECT message to the device
  2. We send our system-information string to the device
  3. The device sends you an AUTH message
  4. The device sends you the token you can sign
  5. Now you have two options
  • Sign the token with your private key and send it back with an AUTH type 2 OR
  • Send the device your public key with an AUTH type 3, this option will open the "trust this computer" prompt on the device.
  1. The device accepts your signed token or public key and sends back it's own CONNECT message NOTE: if for any reason you send back the AUTH packet with your public key and the device does not respond, a retransmission of the AUTH/public key does not appear to work, and you must restart the connection process from step 1.
  2. Device sends some information about itself

You can now send normal messages to your device.

Sending Messages & ADB Shell

After that handshake business we can start doing other things, like opening a shell on the device.

Command type OPEN lets you open another stream into the device, in this case we're opening a shell stream.
Command type WRTE is for sending any old data across as part of that stream.

The documentation doesn't like to be consistent, and defines a message type of READY, but the string you send as the COMMAND field of the packet is OKAY. I'm going to refer to this as an OKAY message. If we're sending OPEN/WRTE then we must wait for a response of OKAY before it can send again, otherwise the device will disconnect from us because this protocol handles the receiving of out-of-order data gracefully.

So, if we want to open a shell after the handshake we would have another flow that's something like:

  1. We send OPEN message to device
  2. We send shell string to device
  3. Device sends OKAY message back to us
  4. Device sends WRTE message to us
  5. Device sends as string that's the shells terminal prompt
  6. We send OKAY to the device

Note that the end of whatever string you're sending the device as part of an OPEN message requires a : between the type of stream we want to open and the rest of the commands string. As an example, if we wanted to send a shell ls -al command, the data payload as part of our OPEN message needs to be shell:ls -al.

So this means that any stream we want to open to the device has the following format: streamType:options.. For example adb reboot would be reboot:, adb shell rm -rf / would be shell:rm -rf /, etc.

Sync Commands

Besides the 7 command types listed in the documentation for ADB there are a number of 'undocumented' sync command types. You can think of these as sub commands, as they come as the data payload for another command. These sub commands are used to signal the device about the next thing we want to do, or information we want it to send us.

There is some information about these commands in the sync documentation but as usual the documentation is incomplete.

The sub commands include: SEND, RECV, DATA, STAT, and QUIT. There may be others.

For example say we want to use the adb push command, the protocol nests STAT and SEND within WRTE commands during the transfer of the data, and our host machine will nest a QUIT inside a final WRTE in order to signal the end of the transfer. The adb pull command works similarly except that there is a RECV nested inside a WRITE rather than a SEND, we also recv a DATA + file data inside of another WRTE.

DATA is the subcommand that is the exception to the command first, then another packet with the data payload rule, though technically the DATA command is part of the data payload for another command.

The STAT sub command is used to get file attributes.

typedef struct _rf_stat__ 
    unsigned id;    // ID_STAT('S' 'T' 'A' 'T')
    unsigned mode;
    unsigned size;
    unsigned time;

ADB Push

  1. We send OPEN message to device
  2. We send sync: to the device sync: starts a SYNC service
  3. Device sends us OKAY
  4. We send WRTE message to device
  5. We send STAT to the device
  6. Device sends us OKAY
  7. We send WRTE to device
  8. We send the destination of where we want to push a file to, sdcard/
  9. Device sends us OKAY
  10. Device sends us WRTE
  11. Device sends us STAT + some info about the destination we're sending to sdcard/
  12. We send OKAY to device
  13. We send WRTE to device
  14. We send SEND to device, note that there is another 4 bytes in the data payload of this packet which is the length of the file destination + name in characters plus the ',mode' portion from 17. So if we're sending sdcard//testFile.txt,XXXXX we write SEND26. The ADB protocol is full of inconsistencies, in case you hadn't already noticed.
  15. Device sends us OKAY
  16. We send WRTE to device
  17. We send string about the file we're sending sdcard//testFile.txt,XXXXX,DATAnnnnTheFileData
    • This string can be confusing at first glance, to clarify, the format is: full file path, the mode of the file in decimal (0644 becomes 33188), DATAnnnnTheFileData where nnnn is the size of the file sending, each n is one byte.
    • If your file is larger than 64k bits you just need to keep sending WRTE with file data followed by another DATA nnnnFileData until you've sent all the file data.
    • When we're sending the packet containing the last of the file data we append DONEnnnn to the end of the packet, where nnnn is the creation time we want the file to have on the device.
  18. Device sends us OKAY NOTE: here were assuming we just sent a data packet that also contained DONE, indicating we've sent all the data.
  19. Device sends us WRTE
  20. Device sends us OKAY
  21. We send OKAY to device
  22. We send WRTE to device
  23. We send QUIT to device
  24. Device sends us OKAY
  25. We send CLSE to device
  26. Device sends us CLSE

ADB Pull

The flow of an ADB pull starts of like the push flow up until step 8:

  1. We send full path of file we want to pull sdcard/someFile.txt
  2. Device sends us OKAY
  3. Device sends us WRTE
  4. Device sends us STAT with stats about the file we want to pull
  5. We send OKAY to device
  6. We send WRTE to device
  7. We send RECV to device
  8. Device sends us OKAY
  9. We send WRTE to the device
  10. We send the path of the file we want again sdcard/someFile.txt
  11. Device sends us OKAY
  12. Device sends us WRTE
  13. Device sends us DATA + data length + the file data, if the file is more than 64k there will be multiple DATA messages. The last file data transfer will be terminated with DONE after the file data portion of the payload.
  14. We send the device OKAY after each DATA message
  15. At the end of the data transfer we send WRTE to the device
  16. We send QUIT message to device
  17. Device sends us OKAY
  18. We send CLSE message to device
  19. Device sends us CLSE

ADB List

This command is not available through the adb command. It lists files in a folder. It is more reliable than parsing the results of adb shell 'ls -al <remote dir>' - see

NOTE: I've been in contact with someone at Google who passed on this message from an engineer who works on Android:

"adb list" is available through adb, it's just called ls: adb ls/, for example (as opposed to adb shell ls /).

  1. We send OPEN message to device
  2. We send sync: to the device sync: starts a SYNC service
  3. Device sends us OKAY
  4. We send WRTE to device
  5. We send LIST to device and the length (in characters) of the remote path we want to list
  6. Device sends OKAY
  7. We send WRTE to device
  8. We send the remote path we want to list e.g. sdcard/
  9. Device sends OKAY
  10. We send WRTE to device
  11. We send RECV to device
  12. Device sends a series of "dents" (directory entries), across an arbitrary number of packets of arbitrary length - sometimes the packets are only 1 byte long. It will send OKAY when the next packet is ready. We keep returning to 10. (send WRTE, RECV, read DENT) until we receive DONE. "dents" can be split across several packets, but are the following structure:
    1. A four-byte response id DENT (or DONE, if there are no more files to list. DONE is sent immediately if the remote path does not exist or if it is not a folder)
    2. A four-byte integer representing file mode - first 9 bits of this mode represent the file permissions, as with chmod mode. Bits 14 to 16 seem to represent the file type, one of 0b100 (file), 0b010 (directory), 0b101 (symlink)
    3. A four-byte integer representing file size.
    4. A four-byte integer representing last modified time in seconds since Unix Epoch.
    5. A four-byte integer representing file name length.
    6. A utf-8 string representing the file name.
    7. Back to 1.
  13. Device sends DONE. DONE can appear anywhere within the packet, either at the start, middle, or end. Sometimes the rest of the packet after DONE is padded with 0s.
  14. We send OKAY to device
  15. We send WRTE to device
  16. We send QUIT to device
  17. Device sends us OKAY
  18. We send CLSE to device
  19. Device sends us CLSE

ADB Install

Install is just a combination of pushing an APK to /data/local/tmp and then running the shell command pm install /data/local/temp/apkName.apk.

ADB Reboot

Just open a stream with the command reboot:.


The AOSP thought it was cool to use their own crypto library in order to sign tokens used in the authentication process, even though they're using standard RSA keys. If you want to be able to authenticate with a device instead of sending it your public key everytime you make a connection, you'll need to use their library. Or reimplement it yourself.

The library is called libmincrypt, and can be found here.

Open Source Agenda is not affiliated with "AdbDocumentation" Project. README Source: cstyan/adbDocumentation
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